Changing Associations

09/02/2022

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CHANGING ASSOCIATIONS

Imagine you work in an office and you are nervous of your boss. You hear them coming down the corridor and you feel yourself getting stressed. You stare intently at the screen, hoping if you avoid eye contact, they won’t come over.

Your boss walks over, places cash on your desk for you and leaves. You look at the cash and think that encounter wasn’t so bad.

The next day you are reading a manual and hear your boss approaching. Your boss walks by and again places cash on your desk for you and leaves. You look at the cash and think your boss walking by might be a pretty good thing.

The third day while talking on the phone, you hear your boss coming towards your desk. You stop talking and look up at the boss as they put cash on your desk for you. How might you feel about your boss?

If your boss brings good things every time they pass regardless of what you are doing, you will start to look forward to them appearing. You may even get up to greet them. Your feelings have changed and so has your behaviour.

Instead of having a negative association, you are starting to build a positive one.

We can use exactly the same process with our dogs to help them shift from feeling fearful or nervous when they see triggers to feeling happy or even optimistic.

To do this we can use the Open Bar/Closed Bar method. When your dog notices a trigger, feed them high value treats. Keep feeding as long as the trigger is visible and stop as soon as it goes away.

The order here is very important. The food must appear after your dog is aware of the trigger and not before. This means that the trigger will predict tasty things appearing and not the other way around! If you get the order wrong, your dog may learn that treats predict scary things happening, which can cause an aversion to treats!

You are not looking for any particular behaviour from your dog. You are going to feed them regardless of what they are doing, even if they’re reacting. This may seem counterintuitive but remember you are focusing on building new associations.

Don’t worry about reinforcing their reactivity. Just as changing how you felt about your boss, changed your behaviour, changing how your dog feels will see them offer new behaviours too.

So make sure triggers are always followed by good things appearing and you will be well on your way to changing how your dog feels and behaves!
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