Desensitization for collar grabs…the case of the foster Beagle

Currently, we have a student in the Karen Pryor Academy named Andre Yeu.

Andre is from Toronto, and is attending the Academy with his foster beagle, Petey.

Petey won’t be an easy dog to rehome because he has a bite history. Petey would bite hard when restrained, by collar, leash, or harness.

At a recent workshop, Andre and I were talking about this issue. You see, I have a soft spot for Beagles in general and “Sweetie Petey” in particular. I wanted to give Andre and Petey some tips to work through this problem and hopefully, increase Petey’s chance of finding the perfect “forever home.”

Desensitization to restraint, collar/harness/scruff manipulation is a critical component of all my foundation classes and something even my advanced students work on. Fact of the matter is, nobody likes being grabbed around the neck and restrained.

I shared my method of desensitization and counter conditioning for this, the same thing I have all my students do in class. I like to have them practice both handling the dog on harness or collar as well as having them restrain the dog by the scruff, should he ever slip his collar or harness. I will only write out tips for one of these techniques since the protocol is the same for both handling by the harness and handling by the scruff. I’ll list the protocol for scruffing since it has slightly more steps than the harness handling, and I do encourage readers to comment with any questions should they encounter trouble on the training journey!

You won’t need a clicker for this exercise, just some particularly nom-my treats. (Nom = Yum)

You will have one empty hand and one hand full of treaty goodness. There are only three rules you’ll need to follow and they are:

1) contact hand moves first
2) food in mouth as soon as hand touches dog
3) both hands move away fro the dog at the same time

So with a scruff grab, the steps may look like this:

1. touch scruff
2. rub scruff – brief duration
3. rub scruff – more duration
4. brief, light, scruff grab
5. brief, more secure scruff grab
6. longer, light scruff grab
7. longer, more secure scruff grab
8. lead dog for one step by scruff
9. lead dog for multiple steps by scruff
10. light scruff grab, brief duration, increasing distraction
11. more secure scruff grab, brief duration, same level of distraction
12. more secure scruff grab, brief duration, increasing distraction
13. light scruff grab, more duration, increasing distraction
14. more secure scruff grab, brief duration, same level of distraction
15. more secure scruff grab, more duration, increasing distraction
16. light scruff grab, brief duration, increasing distraction, leading dog for a step or two
17. light scruff grab, more duration, same level of distraction, leading dog for multiple steps
18. etc, etc, etc. Eventually, we work up to grabbing the dog by the scruff, leading away from play, reinforcing and releasing back into the play environment so that the dogs come to understand being scruffed/restrained in “high drive” situations is no big deal.

Alternate between raising the following criteria: intensity of contact, duration of contact, intensity of distractions, distance you’re leading the dog through contact.

These steps can be modified per your dog’s needs and broken down into smaller steps as necessary. If Petey wasn’t comfortable with me starting out touching his neck, I would add additional steps at the beginning which would involve counterconditioning an enthusiastic response as I reached and then bent toward him.

So for step 1, I would begin moving my “contact hand” toward the dog and the instant that my hand made contact with the scruff, would begin feeding really yummy treats. I would feed continuously as I touched the dog for a second or two, and then take both my hands away (I put them both behind my back) at the same instant. The sequence is – contact hand makes contact with dog = food going into mouth. 1:1 ratio.

When do you move onto the next step? When your dog is not only tolerating, but actively soliciting the current level of contact. This is called a “conditioned emotional response.” Make it harder when he’s THRILLED that you’re touching his neck.

Because Petey had bitten Andre on numerous occasions, we needed to talk very specifically about threshold. The crux of this training’s success is making sure that it never “sends Petey over the top.” Therefore, we need to recognize the signs that Petey is “approaching the top” and stop.

Petey’s got a pretty “hard mouth.” This means he has little bite inhibition and when he uses his teeth, he does so without much discretion or consideration for how fragile human skin can be. Andre’s done a lot of work with him on this since workshop 1, so we can begin using bite strength as an indicator of emotional state.

I know from my experience working with Monte that how a dog uses his teeth is a great indicator of his emotional state. Monte is normally a gentle, sweet boy when taking treats. But as soon as we get near his threshold, he starts “sharking,” snatching treats and chomping fingers.

I told Andre that when he started noticing “chompiness” it means he is approaching Petey’s threshold. Usually, with the dogs I’ve worked with, the sequence is: take treats gently –> snatch treats roughly –> stop eating and start “freaking out” (reacting).

We need to stop progressing between the first two steps so we can prevent the “freaking out.”

Andre hadn’t done much classical conditioning, and wanted to know when you began to use a lower value reinforcer. My answer? You don’t. You just keep raising criteria.

I never use sub-par reinforcers when doing any counter conditioning (CC) or desensitization (D). I always use “platinum level” stuff, the very highest level reinforcers. Instead of downgrading treats, I upgrade criteria. Counter conditioning and desensitization should always involve the use of potent reinforcers. By the time you have established the C.E.R. (conditioned emotional response) of enthusiastic acceptance and eager anticipation at the current level of exposure, reinforcers should no longer be needed – the point of D/CC is that the experience itself becomes classically conditioned as reinforcing.

If I can, I’ll get some video of a session working with a dog on the steps of D/CC for harness/scruff grabbing and leading.

The protocol listed in this article will work for virtually any kind of husbandry or tactile manipulation. To create a training plan, list every possible level of exposure between your dog’s current comfort level and your eventual training goal. Making the steps as small as possible will actually increase your chances for training success.

Please comment on your experiences or share videos as you proceed through the training. I look forward to hearing of your dog’s (and Petey’s) counter conditioning and desensitization success!

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