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The Effect of Anticipation

Building new habits, breaking old habits

first published August 2018

– outline
When habits of frustration have been building over years, trying to break them can be quite labour instensive and take months. Sarah Owings has given some great tips for her re-homed Lab, Tucker, who arrived with habits carved into stone. There is likely to be a natural growth to a habit, for good or for bad, when it goes beyond a certain amount of success it become less plastic and changeable. For some habits this is our aim, but for others it is the very devil to live with. Five month old Zip only took a week of once daily changes to lose a bad habit. But I do automatically include variation in most of my tasks that are relevant to the dogs.  

Always anticipate that anticipation will occur.

Habits written in stone

Author: Sarah Owings

KL: “For dogs that have already learned frustrating behaviours in anticipation of exciting events the patterns need to be broken into extremely small events with intermittent, low value reinforcers.” I find it really difficult to bring in enough irrelevance sometimes to whitewash the original antecedents effectively. Picking up a leash 30 times a day, but not going for a walk is the standard way to break relevant patterns. 30 times a day my dog would get really excited, then calm down again. What I started doing that seemed helpful was to attempt to find back-door ways to meet my dog’s needs first, and then work on the behaviors I wanted in the problem context. For example, my dog Tucker had a very loud barking in the crate behavior on the cue of my car decelerating just about anywhere. No specific locations, just slowing and parking would trigger it. Now, I suppose I could have done 100 non-relevant trips around the block in the car every day. But instead I tried meeting his needs first before we left the house: a period of playtime, then a short walk (going to the bathroom turned out to be an important aspect of car-angst I discovered, and he always poops on walks), and THEN I worked on the short car rides with lower value reinforcement (a Pet Tutor dispensing food). This all developed a car-prep ritual that still involves anticipation, I think, but the ear-splitting shrieking is hugely improved. I think he’s just more comfortable and a little more satiated perhaps?

KL: I think that is a good policy- dog’s needs first, our embarrassment second! We should never forget that nothing can be “unlearned”.

It sounds like there were more conditions having an effect not just the arousal of going for a walk?

One solution that worked well with a spinning collie, was to arrive, let him out – have a very quick pee – then back in. Total of 2 minutes.
Arriving only ever resulted in a pee or not question, and car-for-walks were cancelled for the month with games in the garden instead. But you have a serious brain box to infiltrate there!
Dogs quickly suss the difference between local driving and long distance driving. The amazing element is when they pick up from us “near arrival” to a new place!

How does he cope on long, long journeys? Does it become flooding to a degree?

SO: Your idea of popping the collie out right away, meeting a need, then working on the skill of calm in the car is brilliant. Anytime I can get out of the rut of “just waiting the dog out” (see video above), I’ll take it! 

I must confess the trainer I am in this video makes me cringe. Tucker has taught me so much since, namely, that macro extinction is not your friend, and “waiting for quiet” is useless and frustrating if you have no behavior to reinforce!
That’s why I began thinking about motivating operations and antecedents instead of contingencies to change this response. When everything in the context was cuing the barking – including me approaching the car – he could not behave otherwise until I changed the antecedent conditions. 
The antecedent conditions I changed:
~ adding a crate,
~ teaching release cues in a separate context,
~ meet his needs before loading him in the car (play, walk, potty)
These seem to have had the best results. I will also sometimes use a food dispenser when arriving at a trial. It has been a huge accomplishment for him to be relaxed enough to be able to eat while I park at a trial. Trials involve a lot more waiting in the car upon arrival than park trips! The the level of anticipation at a trial is extremely high.

KL: Excellent. We do sometimes get stuck between the corner and a dark place.

I think the policy of “car-time” for EVERY possible reason except exiting for a walk has to be a contributing factor.

It may seem a bit odd to recommend a day out in the car for no other purpose than a 5 minutes chance at competition, but this element has made a significant contribution for more than our dogs.

The day starts with usually a long drive (for me, 2 hours is long although I know 2 days may be your average). Then we have to spend many hours waiting our turn, often 8-10. Although we get to socialise with other competitors, I like to set it up for the dog to have plenty to watch, different air-smells, occasional boring strolls and then a chance to compete.

I suppose it changes the context of being in the car significantly? I certainly get no excitement on arriving home!

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  1. Sabine Martini-Hansske

    it is an interesting topic and one that touches home with me, as I imagine with many dog owners. I wonder how you would adress the following scenarios (taken from my dog history):

    – rescued Dalmatian, 3 years old: would whine constantly during car-drives with intermittend barking at trucks or motorbikes driving up from behind, unless the travelling speed was faster then 80 km/h

    – dog barking when travelling past certain landmarks that would or would not cue the location of the walk: like driving through a village and at THAT house: barking. I always drove past that house, never stopped and the location of the walk was several 100 metres past that house.

    Your training plan adressed barking when decelerating/waiting to be released from the car. I still lack ideas on how to work on “barking/whining while driving”.

    • K Laurence

      Once you have allowed the habit to develop you have to go back to the beginning to “undo it”.
      What is maintaining and reinforcing this behaviour?

      • Sabine Martini-Hansske

        For the rescued Dalmatian (I have to write from memory, she died about 6 years ago) I would say, the movement of the car maintained the behaviour. But why only speeds slower than 80km/hour? She wasn’t car-sick. I can only surmise that the habit was started while living with one of her previous owners before she came to us.

        I drove her for hours on country roads, trying to reinforce her during driving (no helper most of the time) for quiet periods. Letting her wait in the car, taking her to work, etc.

        For the recent/actual barking behaviour at certain landmarks: the variable possibility that we will turn into that particular trail or turn at the next crossing which will then lead to another landmark that predicts another turn into a trail a bit farther away.

        And, as this is a group, the first dog barking will lead to the others joining, making this a group behaviour.

        • Iris Maxfield

          My dogs have a tenancy to do this too Sabine, its one dog that gets excited and sets the others off. We do two regular locations that are safe for free running,the one dog starts revving up about half a mile before arrival another starts chewing madly on a large old bone. always in her travel compartment.

          On distance travel, if I’m not quick enough to turn it off, the satnav has only to start saying “you have reached your destination” (even when you know you have two miles more to go) and he starts revving up again.


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