Case information

Client’s name: Linda

Dog’s name: Joe

Breed: Dutch Shepherd

Age: 3 years

Additional animals in household: Two dogs

The first part of this case study, covering Joe’s initial presentation, background, and history was presented in the June 2016 issue of the IAABC Journal. The following information covers consulting sessions five through eight, with a summary of Joe’s status today.

Linda and I met two times a week for a total of eight working sessions. The goals for the sessions were:

1.  Decrease reactivity on walks: Linda walks Joe daily and would like to pass by people without Joe lunging and barking at them.

2.  Reduce barking and lunging at strangers in general. We are working on “place” or “settle” as a replacement behavior.

The video of each of the four sessions is edited down to five minutes or less, highlighting the skills we worked on in each part of the session. All of the sessions are at the small field across from Linda’s house. There are two streets next to this field. One street is heavily traveled; the other street is between Linda’s house and the field and is less traveled. The various exercises that follow are all designed to increase Joe’s tolerance to people in his environment. Joe’s triggers are:

1.  Proximity to strangers.
2.  Direct eye contact from strangers.
3.  Strangers walking toward Joe and Linda while looking at them.
4.  Movement in the environment (animals, people, bicycles, etc.).

Consult #5

Linda reports Joe is much more relaxed and comfortable traveling in the car than he was before we started the lessons. Barking at people in the car while in parking lots has been reduced by 75 percent. Linda has ordered some screening material for her fence to help with Joe’s fence running, and barking at people and dogs walking by the yard.

Joe is continuing to improve in the house and can stay on his mat for longer periods of time, with chew toys to help him settle.

Session work

This session’s skills: Linda is using food for counter-conditioning and as a reinforcer for behaviors she wants to maintain or increase. This is a blend of respondent and operant conditioning. We are working outside in the field, and will work on increasing Joe’s tolerance for people in the environment at closer proximity.

The first exercise will be walking toward a person who is not looking at Linda or Joe, and the person will stand sideways in profile to them. In our last session, our ending distance was 20 feet from a stranger; in this session, we will work to decrease this distance to six feet.

In the second exercise, we will work on direct approaches toward people. My plan is to have Linda and Joe walk toward the person in a calm, relaxed manner. We have not worked on this skill in our prior sessions, and will work at a distance where Joe can remain calm. This is a fact-finding exercise as I am curious to see how Joe responds to a person when he is close enough to choose to solicit attention or gather more information about the person by sniffing or another interaction.

I have placed small flags in the ground for these sessions, to mark distances and to help Linda maintain a safe distance and gauge the distance from the stranger. The stranger is 20 feet from one side the flags, and Linda and Joe are starting 20 feet from the other side, making the total distance between Linda and Joe and the stranger 40 feet.

The plan

1. Indirectly walking toward a person: Linda will start at an approximate distance of 40 feet from the stranger and walk toward the line of flags. Linda will reinforce Joe for any relaxed behaviors such as:

  • Checking in (looking at her).
  • Joe’s choices to move away.
  • Disengagement (including sniffing, head or body turning away from trigger).
  • Relaxed walking.

For this session, we are starting where we left off with the person 20 feet from the flags, standing sideways. After a few repetitions at this distance as a review to make sure that Joe retained his previous learning, the person took one step closer. We finished the session with Joe five feet closer. Linda changed her path at each approach (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Field setup for Consult #5 Exercise 1.

Figure 1: Field setup for Consult #5 Exercise 1.

2. Directly walking at a person: In the past, Joe would lunge and jump at a person walking toward him and then return to Linda. I set up five flags, each five feet apart with the target person (me) 10 feet from the last flag. I was standing perpendicular to Joe with my hand palm side out, slightly away from my body. Linda will walk to the first flag and then walk away. For each repetition, Linda will walk to the next closest flag. At the final flag, Linda will let Joe choose to investigate the person or choose to move away.

Plan time: Work for five minutes then break for five minutes. Total work time will be 15 minutes.

The result

1. Indirectly walking toward a person: Joe is becoming comfortable walking toward a person at 20 feet and was able to relax as we decreased the distance to 10 feet. He is staying calm at the closer distance, and ready for the next part of his program. This will be to decrease the distance to eight feet and add strangers looking at Joe while they are walking toward and by Linda and Joe.
2. Directly walking toward a person: Joe’s initial response followed his previous behavior preference, which was to move ahead of Linda toward the person. Linda’s leash kept Joe from moving more than a couple of feet ahead of her, which was not how I wanted this exercise to progress. We decided to slow down and break the exercise into smaller approximations. Linda took one step toward the person, then walked away. Joe was able to stay by Linda at one step, so we added in an additional step and moved away. We repeated with two steps toward the person, then moving away. After the second repetition, Joe relaxed and walked next to Linda as he approached the stranger. We continued moving forward until Joe was within five feet of the person, and gave him the opportunity to choose to sniff the stranger. He chose to walk away. This choice gave us information about Joe’s preferences. He is not interested in interacting with strange people. A perfectly wonderful choice!

Additional information

General plan information: Each session we are working to increase Joe’s tolerance for strange people at closer distances until we reach a workable distance for Linda’s everyday needs. The plan includes adding duration (staying closer for a period of time) after we work on proximity and continued calmness. Our sessions are from five to 10 minutes. We are slowly decreasing the distance between Joe and the stranger. We often change the distances in response to general environmental stimulation (intensity of environment, which may include large trucks, construction, groups of people, etc.). We will increase the distance from the stranger if the environment alone is creating stress for Joe. I try to work one piece of criteria at a time if possible and adjust our plan for Joe’s success keeping all of the above in mind.

Suggestions for Linda: Practice modifying and adjusting distances as needed when working in different environments. Keeping duration in mind as well as general environmental stimulation when formulating practice plans.

Consult #6

Linda has been busy and has not had time to practice prior to this session.

Session work

Since Linda has not had time to practice, we decided to continue the skills we worked on in Consult #5, which were approaching a stranger at decreasing distances and walking directly toward a strange person. We are going to make some changes with how the person is oriented toward Joe by including direct eye contact (looking at Joe while Linda and Joe approach) and movement. Linda is using food as a reinforcer for behavior choices she likes, including turning or moving away.

The plan

1. Indirectly walking toward a person: The flags are set across the field as a visual fence for Linda, . This is the same setup as in Consult #5, exercise one. I (the stranger, this time) am standing about 20 feet from the flags. We will start at the same point we ended session five, and I will walk toward Linda and Joe. I started with two steps towards them, then three steps. Our ending distance was 10 feet from the flags.

2. Directly walking toward a person: We set the flags up five feet apart for a gradual approach. I am about 10 feet from the final flag. I am going to look directly at Joe while Linda approaches. If that goes well, I will change my body position to kneeling, then stand with direct eye contact with my body at a 45-degree angle to Joe, and then finally I will stand with my body squared directly to Joe with direct eye contact.

Plan time: Total working time was 20 minutes. We worked in short segments of two to four minutes, with four- to five-minute breaks in between.

The result

Indirectly walking toward a person: We changed two parts of this exercise from our last session. I added motion and walked toward Linda and Joe. Joe handled this change well and was able to relax and chose to move away. The ending distance was 10 feet. There were a lot of things going on around the field: people across the street, some trucks and cars turning onto the side street—Joe was able to adjust, and the exercise went smoothly.

Direct approach to a person: We set up this exercise with five repetitions for each change in the person’s behavior (standing while looking at Joe, bending down and kneeling, standing with side to Joe, standing squarely as Joe approaches). The first change was looking at Joe. Recall that people looking directly at Joe has caused Joe to lunge and bark in the past. As Linda approached each flag, I glanced at Joe and Linda rewarded him for moving away, turning away, or similar disengagement behaviors. We repeated this exercise and increased the length of my looking at him until I was able to watch them walk up to the closest flag, turn and walk away.

Next, I changed my body position and knelt, and we repeated this same procedure until Joe walked up to the closest flag (at 10 feet) and they walked away. It was interesting to see Joe’s choices—he consistently chose to move farther away from me.

For the last few repetitions, I stood and slightly turned my body (to about a 45-degree angle) and looked at Joe. For our final repetition, I stood squarely facing Joe while looking at him. Although Joe exhibited some discomfort (lots of lip licking), he was able to stay relatively relaxed throughout the session.

Suggestions for Linda: Continue to practice around people in Linda’s usual environment. Adjust distances and add distance when needed. Linda exercises Joe near a community garden, so there are often people kneeling, bending, and standing while gardening.

Joe & Linda Sessions 5 & 6

Linda reports Joe has been doing well when they are out walking. His general demeanor is more relaxed, and she has been working on sit-stay while people walk by with great success. At home, Joe is more relaxed and following verbal cues more readily.

Session work

We discussed Joe’s current comfortable distances and Linda’s goals at this time. Joe has been successful at passing people walking by at 15 feet but is still tense with changes in their appearance (wearing hoodies and hats), and with people looking at him as they pass by. We are going to continue to decrease the distance between Joe and people standing as well as people walking by. Linda has stopped randomly feeding Joe treats and is now reinforcing Joe for his choices to turn, look at her, or walk away.

The plan

1.  Approaching a person looking at Joe: The field is set up with a circle of flags with a radius of 15 feet. Linda will approach the circle, and the person will stand and look at Joe. Without prompting, Joe should choose to disengage and move away. Linda will move away and walk back toward the person at a different point on the circle. I’m using a circle of flags for safety and as a clear boundary for Linda as she approaches with Joe from different directions. Training using different directions of approach is important because if we only use one direction, Joe may not generalize the behavior to other approaches from people in his everyday encounters (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Setup in a circle pattern. This setup allows multiple approaches toward a person in a short timespan.

Figure 2: Setup in a circle pattern. This setup allows multiple approaches toward a person in a short timespan.

2. Walk toward a person, turn and walk by: Our plan is designed to mimic natural patterns when out for a walk. Linda and Joe will walk toward a stranger, and then Linda will turn and walk at a 90-degree angle from the stranger. If we can decrease our distance to five feet before making the turn, then we will start walking by the stranger at that decreased distance, which is approximately the distance Linda will need to walk by people on the sidewalk.

Plan time: We spent a total of 15 minutes working. We worked in short segments of three to five minutes, with four- to five-minute breaks in between.

The result

Walking toward a person from different approaches: Joe is showing a general lack of interest in the target person at a distance of 15 feet, and was much more interested in the environment. He was aware of me; he glanced at me occasionally and turned away. He spent more of his time investigating the grass, looking calmly at distractions in the distance (squirrels). He successfully navigated the approaches with nice movement away from me. He was relaxed and calm—as you can see in the video he is air sniffing, searching the ground (there is occasionally cat feces in this field) and is actively looking around at other points of interest in the general area.

Approach a person and walk by: We decreased the distance of the target person to five feet from the flags. Joe was able to walk toward me, turn and walk away while staying with Linda. Joe chose to turn away about four feet from the flag line, which was interesting, and seems to show his preference for about eight feet in proximity. Linda did walk him up to the flag line, turn and walk by at five feet with success. He did so well with this exercise, we modified the game and added just walking by me at a distance of six feet. Joe glanced back at me, but then turned and settled into a nice walk with Linda.

Suggestions for Linda: We both agreed Joe is beginning to feel quite safe with me as his “stranger,” and it was time for Linda to start normal activity around strangers. Our plan for our last meeting is to test his ability to relax next to Linda in a down (Linda’s “settle” cue) while a person walks by, and revisit Joe’s baseline problem: people walking by or in front of him.

Consult #8

In this final session, Linda and I discussed her goals and plans for Joe’s training. The holiday season is a very busy time for her and at this point, we will not meet for formal training again. To recap our goals:

1.  Walking by and around strange people without lunging and barking.

2.  Use “settle” to cue a down-stay when around strange people, or when a person stops to talk to Linda.

Our work on Joe’s reactive behaviors included desensitization and counter-conditioning to strangers walking by, looking directly at Joe and talking to Linda. We taught “settle” as an alternative behavior to lunging and barking at strangers passing by or talking to Linda, and taught a place cue for in-home restless and reactive barking at people inside the home (see Part 1 of this case study). We also reinforced walking away as an alternative behavior to reactive lunging and barking when walking on leash or hiking.

Session work

We discussed using the “settle” cue for Joe when people are walking by, walking up to and talking to Linda and for when he is waiting during his job as a scent detection dog. We started this behavior in session one, and Linda has been periodically cuing Joe to settle when she is out walking, hiking, or exercising Joe. We are going to add a person waving “hi,” talking to Linda, and looking at Joe at a distance of five feet to our plan today, as long as he remains calm at this distance. Linda will use food as the person approaches, as well as for reinforcing holding the stay, any sign of relaxation, and holding the down position.

The second exercise we will work on will be a person walking in front of Joe. Linda would like to use a sit-stay as her preferred behavior in this context. Reinforcement will include adding distance from the stranger, and food for reinforcing the sit-stay.

The plan

1.  Relax: Linda will ask Joe to settle by her and reinforce him while I walk by at a distance of five feet. If he is successful in maintaining a relaxed down, we will add waving and talking to the “stranger.”

2.  Sit-stay and walk away: Linda will walk with Joe down the street, then stop and ask for a sit-stay while I cross in front of them. After I cross the street, Linda and Joe will walk away from me in the opposite direction.

Plan time: Total working time was 15 minutes. We worked in short segments of four to five minutes with four- to five-minute breaks in between.

The results

1.  Settle while a person walks toward and talks: Linda was a little nervous about the five-foot distance, so she started with tossing food as I walked by. Joe occasionally looked at me but maintained the down and just glanced at me in between treats. I added waving “hi” and talking to Linda as I walked by. Joe was able to stay in the down, and although he glanced my way more often than in previous exercises, he was able to hold position and continued to eat treats. During a break, we discussed the difference between respondent and operant conditioning and ways to work with both types of training while moving forward with Joe’s settle cue. The next step will be Linda cuing settle and reinforcing Joe for a relaxed down with longer intervals between food reinforcement.

2.  Sit-stay and walk away: Linda has been using a sit-stay during her walks at street crossings and at a distance of 15 feet when people walk by. The difference in today’s exercise was using this skill while Linda and Joe are walking and the stranger is walking toward them or across their path. We ended at 15 feet as we had not worked sit-stay in the same progressive plan as we had worked the settle behavior. Linda plans on using this skill on her walks, and will continue to decrease the distance to six feet so she can use the sit-stay just off the sidewalk or trail.

Linda & Joe Sessions 7 & 8

Conclusion and prognosis

It is difficult to work with family and friends, as our relationships often color our ability to keep a professional objective approach. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to work with Linda and Joe, who I met as a puppy and watched him grow into a beautiful adult dog. His general distrust of strangers was learned through a series of unfortunate events, and I truly hope he continues to build confidence and tolerance of strange people.

Linda is a dedicated, wonderful trainer and Joe is thriving under her care, both at home and in his work environment. Linda reports that Joe continues to improve and relax on their walks, at home, and out at their training field. Joe has been at a number of workshops and was able to effectively work on scent with people around the search areas without any interest in, or interaction with, them.

Renee Hall, CDBC, owns and operates Let’s Speak Dog Training & Sports Center in Nazareth, PA.  She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and serves on the IAABC Board.