E349: Irith Bloom - Dealing with Feelings

Fear of the vacuum. Barking out the window. A dog that struggles with grooming. Handling the seemingly unfounded feelings our dogs sometimes have about certain things can be complex; join Irith and I as we talk about the training tools and techniques we can use to change the behaviors we see and relieve those feelings. 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau, and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast, brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods. Today I have Irith Bloom back on the podcast to talk about dealing with feelings, the dog kind. Not ours though. Maybe we'll touch on those two. Hi Irith, welcome back to the podcast!

Irith Bloom: Hi there. I'm so thrilled to be back. Thank you for having me. It is always lovely to chat with you and it is always amazing to get an opportunity to talk to the audience that listens to this amazing podcast.

Melissa Breau: Aw, well thank you. It's my pleasure to have you on. To start us off, do you wanna just remind folks a little bit about you and your free crew?

Irith Bloom: So, I am Irith Bloom. I am in Los Angeles, California. I help people and their pets all over the country. I also work with fellow professionals in peer-to-peer sessions. I am currently between furry companions for a lot of practical reasons, one of which is that my home was in shambles after a minor disaster and we happened to be in between furry creatures at the time.

But hopefully everything's gonna be back together soon. And then we will start looking for the right little canine soul to share our home. So I'll tell you all about that little canine soul once that happens. Yeah. Furry Animal in our home.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Alright, so I wanted to have you on to talk about behavior change. So especially the kind related to those big feelings or dogs can sometimes have about weird things or the weirdest things, right? Things like the vacuum cleaner bathtime or the neighbor's dog kind of walking by the house. So what do we know about why are dogs sometimes develop big feelings about what to us feels like maybe very common everyday things?

Irith Bloom: So it's a really great question. It's actually a really, really big question and a big feelings, big question. And to some extent we really don't know.

There's a lot about how learning happens and what things animals learn that is a little bit beyond our complete understanding. So, you know, why would one dog for instance, be really nervous about thunderstorms, but another dog seems to be okay with thunderstorms to pick something that is, you know, a really actually huge, difficult problem to address when a dog has thunderstorm phobia.

But some of the things that are more common causes are, remember that our dogs are living in this very artificial world and so they're kind of living in a box, which means they don't get to move away from things when they want to. They can't necessarily get close to things when they want to. And that box itself can create problems. So for example, take the neighbor dog walking by the house. We'll start with that one. You know, I am sitting in my, I, I'm a dog for this story scenario. I'm sitting in the front room and this dog walks by and I really wanna say hi to the dog. And so I start vocalizing so that the dog will hear me, but the dog doesn't seem to hear me.

So I vocalize a little louder and then the dog walks away and now I'm really frustrated. And so then I see another dog and the same thing happens. And now every time I see a dog, I think, oh, I'm gonna start to feel frustrated. Because that's how the pairing of different kinds of a different kinds of stimuli, that's the plural of stimulus, different kinds of stimuli, pair with the way we feel and we start to associate the feeling with seeing that thing. So that's one way that that might happen. Now, it might be the exact opposite. Hey, I don't want you on my lawn. I mean, I don't know, I can't talk to the dog, right? So, but here I'm the dog so I know I don't want you on my lawn.

I want you to get off my lawn. Quit peeing on my lawn. So I'm very angry and I'm yelling at the other dog, quit peeing on my lawn, quit peeing on my lawn, and then the dog walks away and I'm like, dude, I'm so awesome. I protected my lawn. And so the next time a dog comes by I say, oh, hey, I'm gonna bark at you too. And there's part of that is what we call operant conditioning, which is sort of thoughtful, gold directed behavior where I say, oh look, my barking made that go away so I'm gonna try barking again. But the emotions still get tied up in that, oh, you're on my lawn. So I get frustrated and angry that you're on my lawn and now I'm barking and then you went away and I get some relief.

So all of it is tied up in emotion. Now let's take some of the other examples. Bath time, I mean, I gotta tell you, some dogs don't like the water. I'm sure there are some human children who don't love bath time at first. And there's probably some human adults who don't love bath time or wouldn't get in the ocean voluntarily.

So some of it is just this individual animal thinks water and suds are super fun and this other animal does not. I used to have a dog that the only way I could bathe him and I didn't bathe him often. 'cause fortunately he had a, he was a really easy keeper in terms of his coat. But the only way I could bathe him was by putting peanut butter on the wall so that he could lick peanut butter the entire time I was bathing him because he was so miserable when I got him wet.

And even if I took him out to like a stream or a lake, he would walk in until like sort of his elbow was covered and that was as far as he would ever go in the water. He just didn't think water was awesome. So sometimes it's something that we can't even diagnose about the dog's individual genetic history or learning history.

And then the vacuum cleaner. I have to say that one, I kind of understand. I see so many dogs who seem to overreact to engine noises, especially small engine noises. I cannot back this up with research, but I have a theory that the noise is actually aggravating to them that it's in a pitch range, that they find less pleasant for some reason. Because so many dogs seem to have issues with small engines, whether it's, you know, the little tiny motor in a vacuum cleaner or the motor in like a leaf blower or an edge trimmer, which one of my dogs used to attack edge trimmers. That was really scary to deal with for a while there. But sometimes I think that there's an actual inherent reason within the way that animal is geared.

Just like most humans don't like nails on a chalkboard, why don't you like nails on a chalkboard? Can you explain it to me? I can't explain why I don't like it. So sometimes these things are just inherent. Now we'll get into this I think in a little bit, but one of the other things that can happen is things can become conditioned to be negative emotionally. So you wind up like that dog walking by on the lawn, where in the beginning maybe I was really frustrated 'cause I really wanted to say I wasn't even frustrated. I was really excited 'cause I wanted to say hello, but I never get to say hello. And so now I'm frustrated. So that feeling of frustration got associated with seeing a dog walking by the front of the house.

Even though in the beginning there was no reason for that to be frustrating, there's no sort of natural reason for it. But then the two things got tied together. So hopefully that helps answer that question a little bit.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So knowing that, right, what options do we actually have when we decide we wanna do something to change those big feelings?

Irith Bloom: So it's sort of a two-prong process. The first thing you wanna do is you wanna stop triggering those feelings if you can. Because one of the things about the way the brain works is that the pathways we use the most often become strongest for a variety of reasons, having to do with dendrites and axons talking to each other and myelin sheaths on nerves and all of these things.

But what that means is whatever you practice becomes a stronger and stronger neural circuit essentially. So if my dog is having big feelings about people walking by the front of the house, it would be really helpful if I moved him out of that room or blocked the window in some way or did something so that he's not looking out and seeing that. And if he's hearing jingling dog tags, which Lord knows some dogs are really good at that sound, then maybe I need to put some white noise on towards the front of the house or have television or radio or something that's gonna reduce how important that jingling dog tag sound is. 'cause it's just one of a million sounds and it's not standing out. So that's the first thing we need to do, is we need to say, okay, let's first let's stop strengthening this neural circuit.

And typically in dog training, we call this management. So we're managing the environment, we're managing the where the dog is, we're doing something to manage the dog, the environment, the situation so that the thing doesn't keep happening over and over and over again. Then in a perfect world, what we do is we figure out a way to teach the dog that that thing is not such a big emotional deal and we don't have to get so overexcited or so frustrated or whatever it is that the emotion is. And the way we often do that is by using classical conditioning tools. One of them is desensitization and the other one that is commonly used in the dog training world.

And I'm just gonna say for the record, there is actually an operant version of this too. But for the classical conditioning version, we talk about counter conditioning. And so I will normally say classical counterconditioning because there's also operant counterconditioning. So in classical counterconditioning, our goal is to say there's a negative emotion associated with something and I wanna make it positive.

So I'm gonna back up for a second and just talk about classical conditioning in general. Classical conditioning is where we associate things. It's Pavlov, it's, I rang a bell and you know, food is coming. And so you start drooling. Classical conditioning is not always about emotions. It can be about a physiological reaction like drooling or they do really cool.

There are some really cool old classical conditioning experiments where you put a puff of air in someone's eye and they'll close their eye when they feel a puff of air. That's not something we think about. That is a very quick little neural circuit. And what you do is you play a tone before you do the puff of air. And eventually what happens is the person starts blinking their eye when the tone plays instead of when the puff of air happens.

So we create these associations through classical conditioning. Now we can sometimes start at neutral like the puff of air, unless it's painful, it's reasonably neutral, right? I'm not, hopefully I'm not physically suffering from the puff of air and it's fairly mild so I don't really have a strong emotion associated with it. But you're still able to teach me that the ding or whatever tone you play means air is coming and then I shut my eyes and I don't even think about it.

But then there are situations where, or sorry, I'll back up and I'll say like a puppy. You have a puppy and there's a vacuum cleaner and you want your puppy to be calm about the vacuum cleaner. And so what you teach them is when the vacuum cleaner is out, they get a treat. They don't have a negative feeling about it, it's just this thing sitting in the room. Then you turn it on and you feed them a treat. They don't have a negative feeling about that noise unless that thing I said about small motors is true. They don't have a negative feeling about that noise. What they learn is this noise leads to treats. Woo-hoo, this is great. So that's a lot of what we do in classical conditioning when we talk about there's more than one thing that happens in classical conditioning.

But when we talk about it, we're talking about creating these associations and sometimes we start at neutral. Now I'm gonna go back to counter conditioning. We're gonna switch back into that gear for a second. With counter conditioning, I already have a negative feeling, so I'm not starting at a zero and trying to get my puppy to a 10 on. I love vacuum cleaners, I'm starting at a minus 10 and trying to get to a plus 10. So I have all this extra work I have to do to first get that stimulus to seem less threatening, less negative, less bad, and then I can build up from there and make it positive. Note that I don't always wanna make it super positive. I don't actually want my puppy following the vacuum cleaner around, I want my puppy calm around the vacuum cleaner. So maybe I'm not actually going to teach my puppy who doesn't have an issue with vacuum cleaners. Maybe I'm not gonna push this too much. I'm just gonna be like vacuum cleaner ran. You gotta treat now we just make this part of the background of daily life. But counter conditioning, we often don't have the option to stop with.

Let's make it part of the background of daily life. So we have to actually go through, make it a little more positive and then we can, if we're lucky, back it off to, okay, this is just a neutral thing and you can live with it and you're not gonna, you know, fall over with a heart attack, which dogs don't normally have, but whatever with a heart attack because you saw a vacuum cleaner. Oh and I just realized, I'm so sorry I didn't talk about desensitization. Let me just leap in.

Melissa Breau: So yeah, go for it.

Irith Bloom: Now getting back to desensitization with desensitization, basically what we're saying is something is too intense when it's close up. So let's take the dog who is afraid of the vacuum cleaner when they're in the room with the vacuum cleaner, they're like, this thing is the devil. I'm pretty sure it is possessed. I need to kill it now. Or this thing is the devil, I'm pretty sure it is possessed. I need to hide in a corner and shake depending on the dog's particular proclivities if you will. But it's possible that when they are three rooms away, if you happen to live in a mansion and they hear the vacuum cleaner, they can sort of deal with it. So desensitization, would he be the process where I either move the dog or the vacuum cleaner so that they're slightly closer every time while the dog remains calm, no food involved. This is just straight desensitization that I'm talking about. So first we were 50 feet away, the dog learned to be calm. Now we're 49 feet away, the dog has learned to calm there too. Then 48, 47, 45, skip forward to now we're five feet away and the dog has desensitized to the vacuum cleaner and is able to be calm even when it's close.

Now the proper term is not gradual desensitization, there's a a better term for it, but I'm gonna call it what I just described as gradual desensitization, essentially where we're graduating, graduated desensitization. I still can't come up with the word where we're slowly working our way through it. You can also have desensitization where you're not as rigid about the way you do it and the animal naturally desensitizes usually if they think it's pretty negative to begin with. You have to be doing a more gradual process though. So hopefully that came out making sense to everyone.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, yeah, I think so. So kind of knowing all of that, how much does, you kind of talked about that there, you know, there are multiple reasons the dog might bark out the window at the dog out the window. How much do does kinda those, knowing those underlying feelings, understanding those underlying feelings matter before we can do something about the how they're expressing the feeling.

Irith Bloom: So sometimes it matters, sometimes it doesn't. And it depends in part on what our end goal is. I will say I always feel better if I have a clear idea of what kind of emotional state the animal is in, whether it's a negative emotional state or a positive emotional state. What is it that they want out of the situation? Like is there emotion driving them to get more distance from the thing?

Or is there emotion in the case of the frustrated dog who's barking? 'cause they can't go say hi. Is the emotion actually all about getting closer to the thing? So in the case of something like that front window, and I'm sure that some of our listeners will be familiar with this, you have the dog that's like RA until the dog, the you're on leash on a walk and they're barking, barking, barking. One when the other dog comes up, they completely calm down like, oh you're here and now I can sniff you and now I've gotten what I need and I'm no longer feeling this anxiety about your approach, which could be frustration or fear. It could be a lot of different things. But once you're actually there and I actually get to interact with you, all of those negative emotions fall away. On the other hand, we might have the dog who's barking and lunging at the end of the leash in that walk, but when the other dog walks up, they actually go in for the kill. They were probably having very different emotions. Odds are the one who was like, oh thank goodness I get to say hi was having positive emotions that had just risen a frustration.

So it was a mix of positive and negative where the one who was scared and trying to drive the other dog away, when the dog gets closer now the fear's just getting more intense. So if I don't recognize the difference between that fear and the, I really wanna say high frustration, I'm gonna do the wrong thing as I try to address the behavior because the classical conditioning is gonna work better far away for the dog who is afraid and is like I just,

I just wanna get away and if I wanna desensitize them, I have to start far, far, far away with the dog who really wants to go say hi. What I actually need to desensitize them to is being far away from another dog and not being able to say hello. So I might actually literally start the other way around. We get to say hi to the dog.

Okay, now we're six feet away. You get a couple of treats for remaining calm, six feet away. Then we get to say hi. Now we're eight feet away. You get a couple of treats for being calm while we're eight feet away. Now you get to say hi and I'm actually gonna build my distance backwards and maybe even teach the dog that they don't always get to say hi, which is, I'm getting some of this is mixing operant and classical conditioning technically. But it really does matter because my best training plan, my best training management plan for the situation is going to depend on whether those emotions are positive, are negative, are about getting distance, are about getting interaction. And so if I'm thrilled to see you, the like common one dog who jumps on people at the door, the dog who jumps on you at the door usually calms down when you pet him. If he really wants to say hello, then there are the dogs who jump on you at the door because they're not quite sure what to do because they're anxious about strangers and you pet them and they like move away and they're like, okay, I've determined what kind of stranger you are.

You're a petting stranger and I don't necessarily wanna interact with you. Whereas the one who really, really wanted to interact is gonna hang out and wiggle at you and wag their tail and all of that. So they're having very different emotions and we're gonna have to treat that in a different way.

Melissa Breau: Okay, let's talk about stress. What role does stress play in all of this?

Irith Bloom: Right? So stress, so funny when you said, let's talk about stress and let's talk about stress anyway. So stress is a big, big piece of all of this. And the first thing I wanna clarify is that stress is not always bad in colloquial English. When we're just talking to each other, when we say I'm under a lot of stress, we mean a bad thing. It is a negative. Stress is a negative in your life, right? But scientifically speaking, stress is not positive or negative. It can be either.

We talk about distress, like this is distressing. So take the dog who is jumping at the door because they're so excited to see you technically speaking, their body is experiencing stress. I'll talk in a moment about why it's important that their body is experiencing stress, but it's good stress because they're so happy to see you that they just can't control the wiggle. On the other hand, the dog who's not confident about strangers, the stranger walks in and they're jumping up and down 'cause they're not quite sure to do.

They're also experiencing stress, but that's distress, that's bad stress. So why do I care about the stress that you're experiencing? And I mean, if the dog who's jumping on you is just happy and that's you stress that, good stress stuff, why do I care? Well, I care because from a body experience standpoint, to some extent stress is stress, which means I'm going to have activity in certain parts of the brain and certain hormones are going to be added.

They're called glucocorticoids in case anybody wants to know the technical term are going to be injected into the body because they are part of that stress response. These are the things we talk about. Adrenaline, which being geeky here is technically called epinephrine these days, but that's a side note. It is created by the adrenal glands. This is part of something that happens in what's called the HP axis, which is the hypo axis, excuse me, which is the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis. Again, for anyone who wants to be geeky, look it up, tons of information out there about it.

When we're under stress, that HPA axis, axis, I just can't say the word, creates a cascade of neurochemicals that then lead to hormones being released in the body. There's a whole, it's a whole cascade of chemicals that are happening. And the result is typically our heart rate goes up, we breathe a little faster and certain parts of our brain are primed to work better and other parts are primed to work a little worse.

Now, not all stress rises to the level of, oh my gosh, my adrenal glands are totally over firing and there's a million, you know, molecules of epinephrine coursing through my bloodstream. Some stress is fine. But when it gets excessive, what happens is the parts of the brain that are most responsible for conscious, deliberate, thoughtful decision making are suppressed by that reaction.

And the parts of the brain that are most involved in habitual and instinctive behavior are amplified. So the body experience, whether that dog is super happy in jumping up and down, or super anxious in jumping up and down, neither of them is thinking their best in that moment. And so that's why we care about the stress. So we cared about the feeling 'cause it helps us figure out what's the best plan for helping this dog get calmer or find their brain again, you know, the thinking brain again. But the stress itself is the thing that's turning the thinking part of the brain on or off. Once it gets too high, it turns that brain off. And so we say sit, sit, sit or go to your mat. And the dog's like, I'm sorry that part of my brain is closed for business right now.

You are on hold. We will get back to you when the operator returns to the phone line. But right now the phone line is all going straight to a completely different set of brain structures that are all about jumping up and down. So it's not that they're not listening, it's not that they're being stubborn, they cannot think through the problem and do the right thing in that situation.

Let's go back for a second. So you talked about management earlier. If my dog's issue is say the vacuum cleaner, does that mean that I get an excuse to not vacuum until I've completely fixed this training issue? How important is management and maybe especially complete management when you're working on changing a dog's feelings about a specific trigger? Okay, so the first thing I'm going to say is feel free not to vacuum.

As long as you don't mind the, you know the hair rabbits that you will develop from all the dog and cat hair in your home. So, but I'm okay with those. They go off into the corner and they just occupy the corners. So, so feel free not to vacuum. If you were looking for an excuse, great, don't vacuum. Management is very important in this. So the problem is these tend to be circuits because of the way these circuits are formed in the parts of the brain where they're formed. These are circuits that are formed in those parts of the brain that aren't our thinking parts. They're the reacting habit, instinctive parts.

And the only way that we can override that reaction is by getting the thinking part of the brain to stop, consider the input from the other parts and say, oh, no, no, no wait. This isn't as big of a deal as I thought it was. And that's actually really hard to do. This is also bad news for everyone. If your dog has learned a really strong fear response, it is almost impossible to eradicate it completely.

Physiologically speaking, we do not yet have the technology to erase a fear memory, although there are people who are working on some pretty cool stuff in humans, I will say that. But we don't yet have the technology to erase a fear memory. All we can do is override it with cognition. So our, when, when we have a fear response, certain, I hate to use the word more primitive, but more instinctive parts of our brain, parts of the brain that are less, that are very well developed in basically all mammals are going to be firing. And the way that we then look at what that part of the brain tells us, like your amygdala looks at a scenario and says, oh my gosh, the last time I saw a vacuum cleaner, something really bad happened. You know, a cardboard box fell on me. This is how associations get formed. Vacuum cleaner was being run, dog was following vacuum cleaner. Vacuum cleaner. Knocks in a cardboard box. Cardboard box falls on dog. Dog is now completely panicked about the cardboard box and it's the vacuum cleaner's fault. So the amygdala looks at the vacuum cleaner.

It doesn't, I won't even go into all of the things that are inputs to the amygdala, but the amygdala and these other associated brain areas, they effectively look at the vacuum cleaner and say, oh my gosh, vacuum cleaner, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad news. That thing has hurt me before. And what we need is for the cognitive brain, which is the prefrontal cortex to stop and say, oh no, no, no, no, no, no, it's actually okay. I did all this subsequent learning that that box incident, it was only once. And I've done all this subsequent learning and vacuum cleaners are not bad. It's okay amygdala, thanks so much for the alert, but we don't need to act on it.

The problem is that the time it takes for the amygdala to fire up your stress system is pretty short. And the time it takes for your prefrontal cortex to tamp down that response is a few milliseconds longer. And that can make all the difference. So this has all been an extremely long-winded and technical way to say in a perfect world, we would not allow the dog anywhere near that trigger at all un except in a controlled way where we've got it at the proper distance and we've got, you know, whatever training plan we have set up, set up so that the animal's not overreacting over and over to this thing while we're trying to teach it. Hey frontal cortex, take over this and stop overreacting so much. Because every time we fire that fear circuit, we make that fear circuit a little stronger.

And while I did say we can't really eliminate them, we can at least not strengthen them, right? So that's the issue. So in a perfect world I would make, let's say my dog's afraid of other dogs on walks, take an impossible task care. I would make sure my dog never saw another dog on a walk. That's not realistic. Given that that's not realistic, I'm gonna say, oh,

I see a dog, I'm gonna turn around and walk the other way. So that at best or not at best at worst, my dog sees the dog from a distance where they're under their overreaction threshold, the behavioral overreaction threshold. And then maybe I play with things at that end of the envelope. I do the best I can. My favorite kind of counter conditioning is sounds because I can record them and 100% control how loud they are as I introduce them in a desensitization procedure or in a counter conditioning procedure or putting the two together.

But if the sound that the dog is overreacting to is the doorbell, I'm going to disconnect my doorbell while I'm doing the training. So short answer, perfect world manage perfectly, world's not perfect. Do the best you can in the situations where the trigger happens and it happens at too big of a volume so to speak. It's too intense. Do whatever you can to get out of there as quickly as possible and help your dog calm down as quickly as possible.

Melissa Breau: So even if we understand all of this in theory, that doesn't necessarily make it super easy to apply, right? So I wanna talk about application. Can you talk us through, you've been great at giving me examples, but can you talk us through an example, one more, kind of revisit one of those just of what this all might look like. We pull all those pieces together, Okay?

Irith Bloom: Yes. So I will, I'll, I'm gonna use sound because sound is the one that, like anyone listening to this, I'm going to give you the basic instructions. You can go off and do this right after you finish listening to the podcast. So the first thing you would do, let's say your dog is anxious about, let's not make it the doorbell. 'cause that's, no, you know what, let's make it the doorbell. 'cause you have a lot of control over your own doorbell. Doorbell rings, your dog just explodes. And I don't know if they're anxious or if they're excited, but their stress has gone through the roof. Their frontal cortex is not working, they're no longer able to think through the problem.

So what I do is I get the dog outta the house, like hand them to a dog walker. Whatever you need to do, get the dog outta the house, then have a friend come over and ring the doorbell and record your doorbell a few times. Then take a sound editing program and snip it down to one that perfect ring that sounds just like it really does in your house.

Narrow it down to one perfect ring. The reason you don't do this with the dog in the house is because if the dog is in the house, then what you get is you get a ring with all this barking around it. And that's not what you're trying to desensitize to. It's the doorbell sound you wanna desensitize to. So now I have my perfect one second, or depending if you have one of those doorbells that goes because it actually rings your phone, you know, my three second clip or whatever it is, keep it really short. And you may need to, if it is like a one of those longer doorbells, you may need to only do little snippets of it at once. So I've got a record it's on my phone. I am sitting with my dog, I've got my phone out. This is, we're talking just desensitization here. I'll talk in a minute about how you add the counter conditioning. So just desensitization first. So it's really clear on everyone's head which part is which. I hold the phone, I've got the volume on my phone turned down to zero.

I have literally turned it down to zero and I push the button on my phone, make sure the dog doesn't react to me pushing the button like the little play button on my phone. 'cause you never know what a dog's gonna react to. So that's my baseline. Then I turn the volume up one notch. If you have something like an iPhone, you usually have somewhere between like 15 and 25 notches of volume you can go up.

So I turn the volume up one notch, I play the sound. One of two things is gonna happen, the dog is gonna notice it or the dog is not gonna notice it. Actually that's not true 'cause they could also overreact. But hopefully at that little one volume, I as a human often can't hear the doorbell at that volume and the dog may or may not hear it.

If they do and they notice, keep playing it at that volume. No more never do this for more than a minute at a time. I'm just gonna say like, this is a really good, like do a minute of practice and then take a break kind of thing. Minute you play it over and over a few times until either you've finished your, you could even do 15 or 30 seconds if you want. You finished whatever time you allotted or the dog starts to react more strongly. When the dog starts to react more strongly, you back out because now you're sensitizing, not desensitizing, but let's assume what actually happened is you played the sound. The dog kind of perked up their, they tilted their head or their ear changed position and then you play and you play and you play and they get to the point where they're not even perking their ears up or looking towards the phone or anything.

Then you can go up one more notch. Now again, remember we're keeping it really short. We're doing no more than a minute at a time. That's because the cumulative stress of hearing it over and over, even at a level that they can tolerate, can sometimes become intolerable if it happens too much. Like if someone's tapping your arm, that's not painful.

But if they keep tapping your arm for two minutes in a row, it's gonna get really annoying really fast. So we don't want them to get annoyed by the repeated doorbell sound. So then you slowly work your way up. You're always asking yourself, what is the, there's a standard for this. It's like the push hold or drop standard.

So if the, so push hold or drop basically means I look at how the animal is responding and based on that I either up the level of my criteria or I stay at the level I'm at now, or I reduce the level of my criteria. So the push hold drop for this would be if the dog is completely relaxed within like two or three rings at that level, you just go up a notch. The hold would be the dog is still looking, but they're not overreacting. I've reached the end of my session, I'm gonna start my next session. At that level, the drop would be I played and the dog overreacted. I need to go down a notch. And you might need to do something like muffle the phone or come up with a different way to turn down the volume and you gradually build up to full volume.

Now this whole time the dog's watching you push the button, right? So like duh, the human's making the sound happen. They do figure that out. So what I do next is I get a Bluetooth speaker, I attach it to my phone and I start playing the sound from the speaker. So I'm pushing the button, but the speaker's happening over there. And so now that the sound at least is not coming from the same place that I'm pushing…

Melissa Breau: When you do that, do you reduce the volume all the way back down?

Irith Bloom: Yes. Thank you for saying that. Yes. So I start over at zero volume. I push the button, the non sound went to the Bluetooth speaker, nothing happened.

Now I push the button at notch one sound goes to the Bluetooth speaker. The dog will probably react differently than when it was in your hand. And we build all the way back up to full volume and then I'm gonna move that Bluetooth speaker closer and closer to where the actual doorbell rings, which is probably somewhere near your front door. And only then am I gonna have, start having someone outside the door push the button and see if all of my success is holding. Now I will say when I actually do this, I usually teach the doorbell is a cue. You should go and do this thing when the doorbell rings as part of the incidental training. But technically that is not classical conditioning anymore. That is operant conditioning. So I'm not gonna go down that path.

What I will say is you also at some point need to get the phone out of your hand. So what I'll do is I'll put the phone like on a counter and I just kind of subtly tap it or I get somebody else to be pushing the button on the phone to send it to the Bluetooth speaker while I'm standing in front of the dog and clearly not pushing any buttons or holding any phones.

So there's a lot of ways you can work this so that the dog gets more comfortable with it. Now if you wanna sort of supercharge this, what you do is you add some counter conditioning. And what that means is when I started with the no sound on my phone, pushed the button, dog watched me for pushing the button, I don't even care what they did.

This is not continuing on their behavior. I push the button, I hand the dog a treat, I hand the dog a treat, whether they're sitting down, lying down, wandering in the other direction, scratching whatever they're doing. This is not contingent on their behavior. This is the push button happened, you get a treat. Now the push button happens at notch one, you get a treat. So every time the sound plays at notch one, they get a treat. Sound plays at notch two, they get a treat. I'm still looking for that push stick drop criteria because the food will not necessarily solve the problem. But I'll usually make progress a little faster when I do it this way because the dog has now the opportunity to form a positive association.

When I hear the doorbell sound at this incredibly low volume, I get a treat. So the doorbell sound at this incredibly low volume leads to food and I like food. So the low volume sound leads to food. So the low volume sound is good 'cause I like food. The one thing you need to be super careful about, as soon as you add counter conditioning with desensitization, you're just, you're just upping it and paying attention to the dog's reaction. With the counter conditioning, you have to make sure you get the order of events right. And what I mean by that is one event is the sound happening and the other event is me presenting a treat, which is actually kind of a long, convoluted event while I reach for the treat, hand it to the dog.

But it's, we'll just call it one event. For the purposes of this discussion, I have to make sure the sound happens first because the way classical conditioning works is it goes backwards in time. It bleeds backwards is how I sometimes phrase this. I don't know if that's a helpful or scary concept, but essentially it's like I put a drop of something and then it spread backwards in time.

So I learned from what happened next. I see the vacuum cleaner, that awful sound is going to happen. So now the sight of the vacuum cleaner is associated with the sound of the vacuum cleaner. If the sound happened first and then I saw the vacuum cleaner, I don't know how the dog might react, but they're gonna associate the sight of it after the sound.

They're gonna say, oh that sound means this thing is coming. Which they actually probably learn both now that I'm thinking about it. So first they learn the sight of this means this awful sound is happening and then they lead, oh the, and that awful sound also means that thing is coming into the room. So it becomes this whole cascade. But we wanna make sure that we get it in the right order.

So I don't want the dog to learn my human hands me a treat and then a scary dog appears down the road. I want them to learn. A scary dog appears down the road and my human hands me a treat. So maybe not so scary 'cause I get something good. So whatever happens next is the association you form in classical conditioning. So what that means to get way back to our little sound thing is I wanna make sure the sound happens then the treat appears and it's not a bad idea to have a tiny break.

Although there's so much research on classical conditioning, I can't even tell you. The research suggests that it doesn't matter if they overlap. You don't want them to start at exactly the same time. That's not optimal. But it's okay if one starts and then the other happens and the first thing hasn't quite ended. So I'm gonna say when you hear a sound, then you get a treat and I wanna make sure there's a little bit of a then happening. I push the button, then I pull out the food and what the dog learns is the button means food is coming. This, for those of you who do clicker training, this is why the click works because the dogs learn, the click happens and then food comes.

So the click must be a good thing. So it's the same thing in the sound desensitization. And all I'm doing is I'm adding food to sort of up the ante a little bit.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Alright, so we talked about desensitization and classical conditioning in there and that's kind of the plan, right? So that's all the pieces. Yeah. And the counter conditioning of saying, I know you have a negative feeling about the doorbell. To be really specific, it's counterconditioning. 'cause we had a negative emotion to start with. Okay, how long does this take?

Irith Bloom: That is the $50 million question. And I'm gonna give that dog trainer answer that all dog trainers give to like all questions, which is, it depends. I'll tell you what a lot of it depends on.

So some of it depends on the animal's natural brain tendencies. Some people learn positive associations and negative associations very quickly and easily. Some dogs learn them very quickly and easily. Some unlearn them relatively quickly and easily and others not so much. So the dog in front of you is the one you have to watch. I can't give you a rule of thumb, I can tell you that it's usually a longer process than we want it to be. But what I will say is this is one of those, if you think the process is going slowly slow down what you're doing kind of situations, the more you push, the slower it will go. And I'm gonna tell you exactly why. The more you push, the more stress is involved in the situation.

Remember what we said earlier, too much stress, less ability to do cognition. Cognition is a big part of counter counterconditioning and desensitization. If I can't have my frontal cortex give instructions to the rest of the brain, I'm not gonna be learning a different association. I'm just gonna be repeating the negative association. So as slow as you think you need to go, general rule of thumb go slower.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough.

Irith Bloom: As short as you want the sessions to be general rule of thumb, make the sessions even shorter because what we're worried about is intensifying the stress to the point where the dog dog isn't learning very well. And I won't say the dog won't learn anything because dogs can learn when they're under incredibly high levels of stress.

But guess what? They learn really well under high levels of stress. Fear conditioning under high levels of stress is highly effective. And that's not what we want them to learn. We don't wanna be creating fear conditioning, we wanna be creating a positive association. So the slower you go, the faster it will go. Which I know sounds paradoxical, but that is how it works.

Melissa Breau: I know that you have been working on a class on all of this for FDSA and it's coming out, it's debuting in the April term. Tell us a bit about that. What do folks need to know?

Irith Bloom: Well, okay, so the first thing is, if you enjoyed the geeky bits of our conversation today, you're gonna love the class 'cause it's kind of geeky.

The other thing is, I'm gonna go into a lot more about how we determine if the stress levels are too high and things like that. But everything we just talked about, we're gonna drill down in detail. We're gonna look at practical examples with, you know, students who are actually doing this work with their dog during the course of the course punny as that sounds.

And we're basically gonna take a look. I'm gonna delve even deeper into some of the scientific ideas depending on, you know, where discussions in our forums take us. I've already got, like in the, in the initial lectures, I've got a couple places where I'm like, somebody asked me this question in a forum so I can go deeper into this.

So you know, we're gonna really delve into it as deeply as the students would like to, or at least as deeply as the geekiest of the students would like to. The other people can just ignore those bits. And we're gonna talk a lot about the actual practice and look at how this works in a variety of different scenarios. So if you've been using counter conditioning and desensitization or whatever people, the people mix those words up in a lot of different orders and call them a lot of different things. Whatever form you're using, whether it's just desensitization, just counter conditioning or desensitization and counter conditioning and it's not working for you, this class is gonna help you figure out what are the tweaks you can make so that you actually get a beneficial effect. And you're not just feeding your dog a million treats and feeling like you're getting nowhere.

And meanwhile he's put on five pounds. So that's really what it's about. It's gonna be about both helping you understand why certain things are effective and then going through and practicing those effective things, discussing how to make it more effective. And always reflecting back a little bit on that theory to remind us why it's important. Because I believe that if you understand counter conditioning and desensitization and have a better understanding of classical conditioning in general,

you're gonna be much more effective at using it because you'll come from a place of understanding, you won't need me to tell you what to do. You're gonna say, oh wait, that's right, this thing is happening, therefore I should change my plan in another particular way. Do you wanna talk at all about the types of things that you want, like gold students or silver students to be working on for their plan A little bit,

Yes. So much as I love counter conditioning and desensitization and I also use a lot of operant counter conditioning for cases involving aggression. This is not going to be a class where I'm gonna be able to delve into the level of detail that you need. That really is something where it's best to have a dedicated professional who is guiding you down the path to make sure that nobody gets hurt.

The same is going to apply to some extent, to leash reactivity. It's gonna be a little bit tougher for us to do that using the sort of framework of a six week class. And so, so often reactivity involves severe levels of fear and occasionally scary levels of aggressive behavior that it, it's probably not the ideal. What is ideal is things where we have a lot more control over the situation.

Like that vacuum cleaner, like that doorbell. I've already had one student reach out to me who wants to do counter conditioning and desensitization for the car. That's gonna be a great one for us to tackle together. Very cool. You know those, the kinds of, yeah, I think it's gonna be super fun. The kinds of things where I can basically,

or sounds for that matter where I can basically say, you know what, I can manage my dog mostly for these six weeks to avoid this situation. I can put together a plan where I have full control over whatever the scary or exciting stimuluses and I'm gonna do it. Which might mean you don't vacuum for six weeks. Yay. Right? Or the dog goes out every time you vacuum.

But so vacuum cleaners would be good. I had a dog who was terrified of the dishwasher. That one's a little bit more challenging because of the nature of how dishwashers work. We called it the evil dishwasher of death, by the way. And it was the EO, we called it the EO around the house. So we can even talk about something like a dishwasher or if you have a trash shoot in your building that when you're near it or there's a,

you know, when your door opens and closes, things that we have a fair amount of control over are what's gonna be sort of the ideal target. Excellent. Alright. Any final thoughts or key points you just kind of wanna leave listeners with? I guess what I'll say is I feel like I threw a lot of information at everyone. That is my tendency,

but I also do tamp it down a lot of the time. Not necessarily in a podcast like this, but I promise that I will do everything I can to make the information very accessible and very easy to understand. And if I do have any students who are confused, that means I'm not doing a good enough job of teaching. I will step up my teaching to make sure that anyone in the course is actually totally comfortable.

So just feel confident in that. In general, if you're totally geeky and you wanna reach out and talk to me about classical conditioning or operating conditioning or the HPA axis or whatever, feel free to shoot me an email at trainer@thesophisticateddog.com. And I'm really excited about this class. I think it's gonna be so much fun. But if you're not taking the class,

if you're just listening to the podcast, feel free to go back and listen to whatever bits were a little confusing if they were confusing and see if the repetition helps you understand it. 'cause that is how learning works. And if it doesn't, shoot me an email and I'll help you clarify it. Yeah, or maybe a post up in the alumni list either way.

Yeah. Yes. The alumni list is perfect for this. Yeah. Awesome. Alright, well thank you so much. I, I really appreciate you doing this and it's been fantastic. Yeah, thank you. Such a pleasure. And I look forward to talking to you again when the next occasion arises. So thanks everyone. Have fun. Thank you again to all of our listeners for tuning in,

and we'll be back next week with Erin Lines to talk about teaching polite greetings to those over enthusiastic dogs. If you haven't already, subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast,

music provided royalty free by ben sound.com. The track featured here is called Buddy Audio Editing provided by Chris Lang. Thanks again for tuning in and happy training.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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