Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Who Likes the 4th of July?

Lots of people do I am sure, but for many dogs the customary celebration offers little escape from the barrage of bombs bursting in air. My Newf takes no pleasure in recreating the atmosphere of this nation's birth. She runs for cover in the same spot Max escapes to when she badgers him. When that doesn't provide enough cover she crawls into the bathtub as if she's seen countless westerns. I doubt she realizes modern bathtubs are no longer made of iron.

Last year at this time, Miss Newf weighed in at about 40 pounds and was 15 weeks old. Now she's almost 16 months old and weighs about 105-110 pounds. Aside from her shyness, she's a great dog. She does what she's asked, generally speaking, which can mean sitting, fishing out one of her daddy's socks from the dirty clothes basket, or going outside on official business without stopping to pull weeds. She loves pulling weeds and I really appreciate that's something she loves to do, but she developed a habit of running off to the forbidden front yard zone to pull weeds there too.

Since last year at this time she's learned a lot. She can sit, stay, come, wait, leave it, drop it, roll over, shake, and go out on official business and come right back in when she's done. She can also go get toys when asked but we're still working out the difference between getting a sock and getting a rope. Max doesn't do anything when asked anymore...

The only thing I haven't been able to train her to do is relax. It vexes me that she is so eager to learn and often gets the task by the fourth trial, but when it comes to training OUT a behavior I am having no success. I am not familiar enough with the literature on conditioning to know whether subtracting behaviors is generally more difficult than adding them, but it seems like a good subject to research. I suppose a strict behaviorist would suggest the behavior to be added here is relaxing in the face of an aversive stimulus. I think sometimes that getting the Newf to be calm around fireworks, gunshots, and other bombastic auditory stimuli is like conditioning the fear of snakes out of Indiana Jones.

There are a couple of techniques that could be used here. One technique is flooding or exposure therapy. This is the equivalent of throwing the kid in the deep end of the pool where she'll then realize she can actually swim and therefore no longer needs to fear water. Flooding is a very risky way to go but it doesn't have to be. Exposure to a less threatening stimulus involves less risk and can be used systematically by gradually increasing the strength of the stimulus until the individual no longer fears even the very worst of it. For a dog that fears explosions, systematic desensitization would begin with exposing her to quiet explosions and when she's habituated to them, increasing the volume and leaving it at that level until she's once again so adjusted to it that she ignores the explosions as background noise.

This technique of exposure is how field researchers get primates habituated to their presence. Initially primates are nervous around humans but with gradual exposure, humans fade into the background.

These techniques worked well for getting The Newfssance over her fear of my suitcase. Initially she was so scared of it that covering it with a blanket was the only way to assuage her anxiety. I tried systematic desensitization first by gradually removing the blanket to expose more of the suitcase, but that took too much patience on my part so I switched to flooding. I just left the suitcase in the living room. Eventually she stopped barking and raising her neck hairs at it. Now she doesn't bark at it; she's completely habituated to it.

I wonder how many days of fireworks it would take for Miss Newfy to habituate to them? Longer than is legal to set them off! Ideally we'd have a recording of fireworks, explosions, and gunshots that I could play day and night from quieter to louder until she realizes she's not being physically harmed by the sound. I think that would work beautifully. I wonder if anyone has made such a thing and marketed it with a training plan for just this kind of problem? Hmmmm.... Someone has.

*** For all you Japanophiles, here's a photo I found of a group of Japanese tourists meeting the biggest dog they've ever seen:

*** And, in the heart of Kawaramachi Sanjo, I found an advert featuring a Newfy!!

We got quite a kick out of imagining what would happen if we had Katy walking around with us there. She would definitely be the biggest dog they had ever seen. They would need some serious systematic desensitization after the big scary gaijin and their enormously frightening bear dog came by!

1 comment:

MWR said...

I was surprised this year to see a number of very mellow dogs at the loudest fireworks show I can remember. I'd been led to believe that they all should be freaking out. Maybe it helps the dog to actually see the source of the loud noises, and the benign reactions of humans.

My inclination would be to just ignore the dog's dismay as much as possible. Dogs have pretty easy lives, and my sense is that they have short memories as well.

I also suspect that, even with my limited knowledge of both canine behavior and conditioning theory, I could make a lot of progress with nothing more than a brick of firecrackers and a box of steaks.