We had a really good class last night! We made a few changes this week that seemed to be the right decisions for Elo.
First, I had some discussion with the trainer over the past week and she pointed out to me that I need to stop managing Elo as much and let him learn to manage himself. This is completely true. I think due to the fact that Elo is reactive to EVERYTHING I was treating him pretty constantly for the first few weeks in the name of counter-conditioning, but really all I was achieving was distracting him and not letting him check out and learn to deal with his environment.
I also read an article a few days ago and one quote stood out to me: "Third, it’s not uncommon for owners to inadvertently reinforce barky, reactive behavior. A dog who’s hysterically upset is not going to act more hysterical because he happens to get a treat while he’s screaming; he’s too panicky to learn from consequences like a small treat. But a dog who’s feeling worried, but not hysterical, may experience a cookie that interrupts the barking as a reward for barking… and bark more next time."
I really think this could be part of the problem with Elo. Elo is NOT a fearful dog. He is hypervigilant, over-concerned about everything going on around him, and has a need to control his environment. He doesn't know how to conduct himself around other dogs or in an unfamiliar environment. He is anxious. But he is not fearful! And I really think that if he barks at something and I give him a treat I've just rewarded him and told him that his response was correct! I've seen this happen with him before when he first came home and I inadvertently taught him to go bark at the fence then come back to me for a treat! I've been feeding in the presence of triggers regardless of his response, as I have been told to do (since treats don't reinforce fear), but I am starting to think that is not the right strategy to take with Elo. I think he needs to learn that correct behavior around other dogs is what is going to get rewarded and out of control pot-stirring behavior is not going to get rewarded. I need to stop managing him so heavily so the has the opportunity to think about the situation, make the correct decisions and be rewarded for them.
To those ends, last night I walked confidently into class with Elo under my arm (yes, I carry him in--he's under threshold when he's being carried) set him down behind our barrier, and ignored him while I got our stuff set up. He checked out our spot, but didn't bark. I got his attention back on me and rewarded him by giving him the treat from my hand rather than putting it on the floor. He took it nicely!!! That is as good a sign as any that he is under threshold!! There's another mistake I've been making--assuming my dog is over threshold, when maybe he is really not. He can be alert and enthusiastic without being on the edge of a reactive outburst. He really is a very nice working dog--drivey and motivated, alert and attentive. Those are good things that I can harness and work with. I don't need him to be half asleep in class.
Rather than moving to mat work immediately and pez-dispensering him with treats, we went to the opening of our barrier and worked there for awhile with him chilling and me basically ignoring him. He got treats intermittently, but not every two seconds and only when he actually DID something for it (e.g., eye contact). After chilling for a bit, we did some movement work. We did a lot of LLW/heeling outside of our barrier and chilling outside of our barrier. This week, the instructor decided to use the entire training room so we had a lot more room to move around without getting close to other dogs (behind barriers).
We only did 3 sessions of dog work. I decided these need to be fewer and shorter and if at all possible done without Elo barking. We did all of them with real dogs, as I was starting to think that the "weird" stuffed dog was more of a trigger for E than real dogs are. Elo did not bark, but he wasn't as relaxed as I would like him to be. We kept each session extremely short with just a couple of passes of another dog in front of a small opening in the barrier. Still, I would have preferred he be even more under threshold than he was, but it is extremely difficult to find under threshold situations with Elo and other dogs.
The times Elo did react last night were when new dogs walked into the training room. He could not see them but he could smell them and he would start barking. Toward the end of class, Elo started going out of his way to find trouble. He would start sniffing the air in the direction of another dog (that he couldn't see) who he hadn't reacted to all class long and then start barking. Seriously, Elo? Is that really necessary? I didn't reward him or try to DS/CC him. I just took him away from the situation and tried to engage him in something else. That is not reactivity. That is just being an asshole. But an hour is exhausting for me, so I can only imagine how it is for him.
So that's where we are. Progress little by little. Daylight saving time starts next week and it is starting to warm up a little, so I am hoping to get both Elo and Jun outside more for behavior mod work. Even just taking Elo to a new place 2-3 times a week and doing attention work and LLW will help I think, whether there are dogs around or not. He needs to learn to focus in new environments and not be overly concerned about every little sound and smell.