Regis, Phoebe, and the attack of Frankenstein
Today, I fed both of my dogs for barking. Well, not barking. Going BALLISTIC. And you know what? It didn’t reinforce the behavior!
This particular moment was on our walk this morning; we went on our usual route, hung a left and all of a sudden there was a big, HUGE blow up Frankenstein. Well over ten feet, complete with staring eyes and a loud noisy fan keeping him inflated. Unsurprisingly, my nervous older guy Regis lost it first. He bark/howled, his hair went up, tail went down, and he went as far away as his ten foot leash would allow. Then Phoebe joined in, and all hell broke loose.
My immediate reaction was to try and reel Regis back in (stupid primate instincts!) but after a second I realized that he was panicked, and instead I left slack in the leash, moved about 5 feet away with him, and started to happy talk and feed both of them chicken. After only a few seconds of barking and eating they started to calm down a little bit more, and then were willing to go sniff the Frankenstein on their own. (I want to note that their recovery here was pretty fast because we do this A LOT, happy talking and feeding snacks when something in the environment is weird! If you have a dog that gets worried about new stuff in the environment, always have food on you! It will help your dog become more resilient over time!)
The next blow up guy we encountered they both tentatively investigated and did well, and I anticipate when we see Frankenstein again tomorrow they’ll have less of a reaction or no reaction at all.
Okay, so let’s break down the scenario. They were losing it, I fed them food, and the behavior DECREASED. What the heck, that’s not how training works! Or is it?
Eating food is a behavior that can often help our dogs feel better, it releases some feel good hormones and chemicals in the brain. This means that if we proactively and consistently pair the scary thing with really yummy food (no kibble or milk bones here!) we can teach our dogs to actually feel better about the scary thing, instead of letting them flounder and freak out and hope they stop barking eventually!
So we’re basically interrupting the barking with food, but the barking does not increase. Isn’t food used as positive reinforcement, so the dog should bark more? Here’s the deal: the FUNCTION of the barking isn’t to get food. The function of the barking is likely a defense mechanism, telling the scary thing “GO AWAY”. In order to reinforce the barking itself the consequence to the barking would need to be that the dog gets away from the scary thing, whether by moving away or by having the scary thing move away! Your dog isn’t thinking “I’m barking cause I’m gonna get snackies”, they’re thinking “I’m barking because that thing is horrible and it needs to leave me alone!”, so as a result the food itself is not the goal, but it’s a wonderful side effect of the situation. With consistency eventually the dog understands that the monster predicts snackies and not that they’re in danger, and your dog’s behavior will change because the dog’s emotional state has changed!
Now, if Regis and Phoebe had not been able to eat the food than that would tell me we were way too close and they were WAY too stressed, and the first thing I would need to do would be get some distance between us and the scary thing. And if my dog had any history of redirecting towards me when frightened or worked up (almost like they get scared of something but lash out at whoever is near them because they can’t get to the scary thing!) I would do this cautiously and under the guidance of a trainer. This blog post should not take the place of professional advice!
But if your dog does not redirect, and will take the food, FEED THE FOOD! Help your dog feel better about scary situations with abandon, and do not worry about reinforcing the barking! It’s just not how behavior typically works. Change their emotions, change their behavior!