Part 1 of this topic reviewed a bit of research suggesting that emotional states can (rather easily it appears) be manipulated, which in turn influences our perceptions and opinions of unrelated events. In Part 2, we ask how might these results be applicable to dog training.
Most trainers are intimately aware of and concerned with the emotional states of our dogs. Our goal (at least for those of us who emphasize non-aversive methods) is to promote relaxation, comfort, and general feelings of happiness in our dogs, as we teach them desired behaviors. The use of clicker training and behavior modification programs that use classically-conditioned pleasurable responses are examples.
Touch-Then-Treat: One application of classical conditioning that can be used to build pleasant associations between stimuli is the “touch-then-treat” method. I use this regularly in my training school to teach young dogs that various types of handling (touching) reliably predict something pleasurable (a treat).
The application of “touch-then-treat” is simple – owners first touch (handle a paw, look in an ear, gently restrain) then immediately treat (yummy goodie, pleasant voice). If conducted consistently, various types of handling (touch) come to reliably predict something pleasant (a treat) rather than something unpleasant (putting medications in ears, clipping nails, restraint for injections). The goal is a dog who has this emotional response to most types of handling:
Oooooh……A little to the left please! 🙂
Trigger-Treat techniques: Another application of classical conditioning in dog training is used when we attempt to change an unpleasant association (fear, anxiety) to one that is neutral or even, if possible, pleasurable. For example, redirection techniques that rely upon building a “trigger-treat” association are used with dog-reactive dogs to change what was a highly unpleasant association (sight of unfamiliar dog predicts fear/anxiety)……
…… to an association that is either neutral/relaxed or in the best of all worlds (though admittedly, not easy to achieve), is actually pleasurable.
The Studies: So, how did research studies about contrived emotional states lead me to think about touch-then-treat and trigger-then-treat training techniques? Well, consider that as trainers we pay close attention to the timing that we use (and teach to students) with these techniques. Traditionally, most ascribe to the premise that the timing of presenting each stimulus is essential for effective learning to take place.
For example, in “touch-then-treat”, the treat should immediately follow the touch so that handling reliably predicts presentation of the treat. This results in the neutral stimulus (touch) ultimately taking on the same emotional attributes as the unconditioned stimulus (treat). Because dogs who are eating treats are usually happy dogs, this conditioning leads to dogs who tolerate and often enjoy all types of handling.
Similarly (though admittedly more challenging), in trigger-then-treat, the treat should come immediately after the dog becomes aware of, but has not yet reacted to, the unfamiliar dog (the aversive stimulus). This timing can be pretty darn difficult for many owners (and even for trainers) as we may treat too late or not at all (or are forced to back out of the situation altogether to avoid an unpleasant response in the dog). Treating too late when trying to counter-condition a dog-reactive dog is especially ineffective and problematic.
Hmm….What about treating too early?
If we are to believe the new research, it may be helpful to treat before the touch or the trigger, as this could be used to induce a relaxed and happy emotional state in our dogs. Take a look at the photos below: It does not take a behaviorist (i.e. dog rocket scientist) to see that most dogs getting treats are happy dogs. Agreed?
Happy state of mind = favorable perceptions: The research suggests that inducing a positive emotional state, even arbitrarily (smiling or waving a thumb’s up gesture) puts someone in a state of mind that influences their perceptions of subsequent events in a positive way. Applying this to dog training – If we purposefully induce a pleasurable emotional state before our dogs need to make a decision about another stimulus (i.e. being handled or reacting to an unfamilar dog), might we also improve their overall perceptions of (i.e. reaction to) that stimulus? This is essentially the doggy version of “Hey, George is really a nice guy“. Practically speaking, perhaps we could enhance the effectiveness of the touch-then-treat and trigger-then-treat techniques by adding some “pre-stimulus conditioning”; a change that would also allow us to relax a bit regarding the timing used with these techniques.
The Hypothesis (remember, the is The Science Dog :): A testable hypothesis is that dogs who are induced to experience a pleasurable emotional state (i.e. calm, happy, relaxed) are expected to respond more rapidly and successfully to classical conditioning techniques (touch-then-treat and/or trigger-then-treat), when compared with dogs who are not so induced.
Testing the hypothesis: In Part 3 of this topic, we will examine ways in which we could actually design a study to test this hypothesis with a group of dogs, with the ultimate goal of course, to get their faces to freeze, just like this……