Recently I sold a green lab to a police department for an explosives dog class. The handler received the dog and took it for testing prior to the class, and the dog was passed by the trainers. The trainers also told him to take the dog to the mall, go on escalators, elevators, etc to get the dog familiar with these environments.
At first this seems like good advice, except for the fact that this green handler has no experience dealing with behavioral issues that might come up with this kind of environmental exposure. Without instruction otherwise, most people will treat a fear resonse in a dog the same way they would a scared baby – by trying to soothe the fear. This is exactly the opposite of the proper approach with a dog who has a fear response because a good trainer will decondition the fear using a classical conditioning approach such as playing with the dog in drive as you ease him incrementally into the new environment.
The phone call went like this: “Well Jerry, he was doing great on the floors in the mall, so I took him to the elevator, and walked him into it, and when it started to go up, he kind of flattened into the floor, and then when the doors opened he wanted to get out of there quickly.” So I did it a couple of times, and praised him throughout the ride, but he kept staying flat on the floor, and every time he wanted to run out of the elevator. I explained to him that praising a fear response reinforces the fear response. It is like saying to the dog…..”Yes, that’s it, be afraid now, good boy.” So although he thought he was doing some good, he was actually making the problem progressively worsse and worse each time he repeated the exercise.
To properly introduce the elevator ride, you need to first get the dog near the elevator doors, and engage him in play. Let him see the doors open and close while you play kong with him just outside the doors. Preferably use a kong or a ball on a string so you can use some opposition reflex in the play, keeping him busy tugging if he will. Then, hold the doors open and toss the kong in, and let him go in and get it, and come back out a few times. When he is comfy with that, toss it in and go up or down one floor, playing tug all the while, and as the doors open toss it in and out on the new floor. Take the stairs down, and do it all again. If you see the dog get a little startled by the motion of the elevator’s floor, keep with the in and out for a session or two. It is unnatural for the dog to feel motion like that so keep his mind focused on the toy until he is immune to the ride. Go slow with your progression and let the dog acclimate. Anticipate the problem points – doors opening, tight space, moving floor, etc and get the dog as hign in drive as your can just prior to each of these potential problem points.
Whatever you do, do not praise the fear response. In fact if the dog shows fear, your job it to act completely oblivious to it, and keep on playing. Do not call attention to any negative reaction, that will only reinforce the response. If you see fear you can’t overcome, back up the progression to a point where you had success, and stay there for a bit, until you feel like he is ready to move forward. Break the problem down even further. Open the door, toss the kong in, and open the doors before riding up and let him out, and do this over and over until he is comfy with being inside and playing vigorously before trying to move the floor again.
Classical conditioning is conditioning a response by association. As you associate play and good doggie endorphins with each of these objects, and introduce strange things slowly and incrementally in drive, you will not overload the dog, and you will keep his mind in a positive mood when he is introduced to new things.
The other point to be taken from this is to treat socialization and environmental conditioning like any other key trained skill. You wouldn’t give a new untrained handler the instruction: “Go start the imprinting of your dog on narcotics, we will see you in a few weeks,” and so as well, dont tell your unskilled handler to go “Socialize your dog.” If he doesn;t know how to resolve problems as they come up, you are likely to have him do more damage than good.