Last month in Part 1 of this blog I described how the success I had with the Thundershirt seemed to be at risk because my dog Ernie was developing a fear of the shirt itself. Every time I would pull the shirt out, he would turn and run. (The same way he does when I am getting ready to give him a bath!).
So I began a concerted effort to change how Ernie looks at the Thundershirt. I’m happy to say that my efforts worked. And they worked very quickly. After only a couple of days, Ernie was no longer running when he saw the Thundershirt. So I want to share precisely what I did… along with some lessons this experience taught me.
Basically I did three things to associate the Thundershirt with goodness. First, I started putting the shirt on at random times during the day – not just when a storm was coming. I would leave it on for just a few minutes at a time. Second, I used treats to reinforce that the shirt is a good thing. This included laying the shirt on the floor and tossing a treat on it. It also included always giving Ernie treats as I put the shirt on. Finally, I decided to leave the shirt out in the open – hanging where Ernie could see it (right next to the leash) – rather than pulling it out of a closet when it was needed. As I said, after just a few days Ernie was no longer running from the shirt. And to make sure he doesn’t in the future, I plan to keep up with these tactics.
This little experiment is not rocket science. But the experience did remind me of some basic things that are applicable whenever we are training our dogs. First, our dogs are always learning, whether we are consciously teaching or not. In my case with the Thundershirt, Ernie had learned quickly that the shirt meant loud, scary noises were on their way. And that is certainly not something I was consciously “training.”
Second, using a combination of tactics can be helpful in addressing behavioral issues. The issue I was dealing with is, admittedly, not as challenging as issues such as reactivity, aggression, shyness and others. But it is good to remember that for any issue there may not be one single solution. And, in fact, a combination of tactics may be the best solution.
Finally, this experience served as a reminder to me of the power of using positive reinforcement. Imagine if I had, instead, yelled at Ernie every time he ran. Or chased him. Or flung the shirt at him. My guess is had I tried any of those more aversive tactics, he would still be running from the Thundershirt… and maybe running a lot faster.
In looking into how to address the issue Ernie was having, I also stumbled across a couple of very useful resources on the Thundershirt website. One is a new training program page that address various challenges owners have had with using the Thundershirt. The other is a discussion forum where you can find all sorts of questions (and answers) from dog owners dealing with various anxiety issues.