A few years ago my fearless dog Gracie started having panic attacks. She heard noises from our neighbors upstairs that sounded like marbles being dropped. Every time she heard it she would bolt, panting heavily, and scramble up into my lap with wild eyes.
Normally, if a sound was frightening a dog I would treat him or her using counter-conditioning and desensitization.
For example, If the dog was afraid of the doorbell ringing, I would make an MP3 of a doorbell, play it at a very low volume, click and treat her for not reacting to the sound. Increase the volume every day as long as she doesn’t react. If there is a reaction, start again at a lower volume.
The problem with Gracie’s training was, while I could make an MP3 of marbles being dropped, I couldn’t simulate the sound of them being dropped on the ceiling, and that’s what was triggering Gracie’s panic attacks.
I remembered a lecture I heard at an APDT conference about the power of the clicker on a clicker savvy dog. The lecturer talked about using the clicker to train a dog who to stop barking too much. She used the clicker in what seemed like a very unusual way. In clicker training the clicker is only used when the dog is doing a behavior you like. You mark the moment and deliver a reward so that the dog learns to repeat the behavior. This lecturer (I wish I remembered her name) said “What does a dog do when it hears the sound of the clicker? It STOPS what it’s doing. Why not use the clicker to get the dog to STOP barking?”.
Now, for clicker trainers, the idea of clicking when the dog is doing a behavior you don’t like goes against everything we believe. But…it does work. When a clicker savvy dog hears that clicker, even in a barking fit, it stops, and comes running for it’s reward. I don’t remember how she completed the training, except that the dog certainly did not get a reward immediately after the click. I think there was a series of commands performed to separate the bark & click from the reward.
What does this have to do with Gracie’s marbles? Gracie began clicker training at three month’s old. She was eight years old when this happened (2012). When she had her next panic attack, I pressed the clicker, and she came running. The sound of the click is deeply ingrained in her head, and she is highly food motivated. It cut through the fear enough to get her to come to me, and gave her a hunk of chicken.
As days went by I increased the time between hearing the marble drop, and clicking the clicker. I tried to catch a moment when she wasn’t panicking and click her for that.
It wasn’t easy to have chicken and a clicker in my hand 24 hours a day, but I always had treats ready. Every single time I heard a sound from upstairs, Gracie got either a click and chicken or a handful of treats. She gradually learned to connect the sound of the marble with wonderful food falling from above.
Then it happened. The sign every trainer looks for, the sign that let’s you know it’s working. A marble dropped, and instead of panicking, Gracie looked at me, in anticipation of the treat. She got a handful of them. (This is called a Conditioned Emotional Response, or CER)
Gracie doesn’t have panic attacks anymore. It’s hard to even remember them. She still comes running when there are sounds from upstairs, looking for her chicken. Once in a while I give her a treat, but usually I just give her a good belly rub and a lot of praise.
Click here for a brief explanation of clicker training.
And here’s a great demonstration of using the clicker to train a dog to relax and stay on a mat, instead of bark and rush the door when the doorbell rings.