it's spooky season!
We love Halloween around here, and like many, we go all out with the decorating. While we may enjoy walking around the neighborhood, the holiday decor can be downright terrifying for some pets. You know what I mean... your walk comes to a screeching halt, and the barking and possibly growling commences. So what can you do about it? Desensitization and counter-conditioning! Whoa, Jen, that sounds sciencey and complicated; can you break it down for me?
First, a little dog psychology lesson. What is counter-conditioning? Counter-conditioning occurs when the pet’s reaction (emotional response) to a stimulus is changed from one that is anxious or fearful to one that is positive and enjoyable. To accomplish this favored rewards should be paired with each exposure to the stimulus (e.g., person, pet, noise, or situation).
Desensitization is a technique of exposing the pet to a stimulus that would normally cause an undesirable reaction at an extremely low level so that there is no response. As the pet becomes less reactive, it is desensitized through exposure to gradually more intense levels of the stimulus. Finding this threshold and developing a gradient for exposure are the keys to successful desensitization.
What does this look like in real life? Well for starters, you're going to begin working on this in the daytime, and with an intense focus on your dog's body language. Bring along some high-value treats (cut up hot dogs or mini liver training treats) and be ready to dole them out. I also want to take a moment to remind you that you shouldn't force your pup to go right up to something they're afraid of.
Back to the walk... we are approaching a decoration and fido is still calm, give treats and use a positive reinforcement word (I like to use a very happy Good! or Yes!) The key here is to keep your dog calm and relaxed. Pay attention to signs of nervousness creeping in. They can be pretty subtle: body stiffening, a paw raise, yawning, whale eye, etc. When you notice a subtle sign, stop your walk, wait for fido to calm, and give more treats. Then you can slowly move forward toward the object. If you find yourself needing to stop very frequently and not making it to the objects, that's okay! This process isn't always quick with a skittish dog, and you can keep repeating the process multiple times per day in short spurts. Sometimes it will seem like you can't take any steps closer, and if that happens, simply back up a little bit and give treats and praise when calm. I always try to end each of these training sessions at a positive time, so don't just head home when your dog is in an anxious state.
Happy walking and don't forget to tell your pet I said hi!