This case study features Diablo, a 3.5 year old, Pitbull, lab mix. Diablo was adopted from the shelter when he was about 5 months old.
Diablo and his family had worked with other trainers to help with his reactivity to dogs. They struggled with the fact that Diablo was not consistently motivated for food or toys, especially when he became anxious. They felt like they kept on hitting dead ends in his training, and were not sure how to progress.
His family wanted to enjoy their walks with him, and help him learn how to socialize with dogs belonging to close family and friends.
They felt frustrated because the moment Diablo was around another dog they lost all connection to him. Diablo would bark, lunge and begin biting or chewing on his leash. As a result, they frequently felt they could not include him as much as they wanted to in their everyday activities, and they felt stressed taking him out for daily walks.
Diablo’s family was referred to my by another trainer that felt unsure of how to help him progress in his training.
The first step was to establish motivation in training. To do this we needed to develop healthy eating habits. Diablo was being free fed. This means that because Diablo was a very “picky” eater, his parents were in the habit of leaving food available throughout the day. This de-valued food, and only made him “pickier” about when and what he ate. We started off by adjusting the amount of food that was being offered at each meal, and any food that was not eaten within 5-10 minutes was picked up. We knew we had found the appropriate quantity of food when Diablo was consistently eating breakfasts and dinner for a period of one week.
Food had also become “poisoned” because Diablo had frequently associated food with highly stressful situations (ie. the close proximity of other dogs). So it was important that we begin pairing food with other highly reinforcing activities. We paired food with games of tug, going outside his front door for a walk, and games where Diablo would jump around to catch bubbles! He started to learn that food did not always predict stressful events.
Once we had established motivation in training, we started to set his foundation. We started Mat Work training. Mat Work training improves communication, strengthens trust and can be used to “put relaxation on cue.” This is similar to the way people that practice yoga or meditation feel calmer when they pull out their cushion or yoga mat. Once these foundation patterns were well established we began to use the mat to facilitate two way communication.
The mat was used to promote calm behavior, and as a diagnostic tool to assess when Diablo was at-threshold or over-threshold.
Once a healthy eating schedule was established, Diablo showed dramatic improvement in his response to training. The same games and activities that his family loved to play with Diablo were used to re-frame Diablo’s association with training. They learned how to incorporate these games into his training to help alleviate stress, improve retention of newly learned skills and to help him decompress after a particularly challenging training session.
It wasn’t long before his owners started to report that Diablo was starting to “check-in” when he saw other dogs on walks. They were even more excited to note that if he did go “over-threshold” he would quickly recover, whereas previously, this would have left him frantic, and worked up for the remainder of their walk.
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