Trainer Annie Grossman of School for the Dogs, one of NYC’s most respected dog training centers, has plenty of wisdom to share with dog people. She covers common dog behavior questions and training tips in her weekly podcast. We’ll be sharing some of those responses right here in a regular feature!
Have a training question of your own? Check out Annie’s blog and click on “Ask Annie.”
Today, Annie offers up a solution for a dog who barks at every skateboard in the park.
Help! My Dog Hates Skateboards
I have a Papillon who loses her mind whenever she sees a skateboard. She barks and will pull at the end of her leash, even if I yell at her. It’s gotten so bad that I start getting stressed out when I see skateboards, even when she isn’t around! What can I do?
Jessica, Oak Park, Chicago
I don’t need to look at the forecast to know it’s nice out: I only need to check my inbox to see the influx of inquiries from dog owners who are traumatized by their dogs’ reactions to the sudden appearance of scooters and skateboards on every corner.
I’m not surprised that yelling isn’t solving the problem. I’m guessing that her reaction stems from fear, and whenever a dog is fearful, it’s wise to avoid attempts at punishment altogether, since punishment may only elicit more fear.
Also: Our goal is for her to learn to not freak out at skateboarders, and none of us do our best learning when we are scared. So, let’s think about reducing her fear before addressing the behavior. My guess is that if we make her feel less scared of skateboards, the barking will subside on its own. I suggest we focus on three things: Avoidance, Habituation and Counter Conditioning.
Figure out anything you can do to reduce encountering skateboards unexpectedly, at least during the next few weeks.
This might mean simply steering clear of busy streets, and also switching directions the moment you spot one at any distance. You can make a game out of these “U-turns,” tossing treats in the direction you just came from and then running that way with her.
At the moment, skateboards only appear at unpredictable intervals. Help them become less novel by finding a recording of the sound of a skateboard online, and playing it a low volume periodically—ideally during her mealtimes. It’s key that you play it at a low enough level that she isn’t stressed out by the sound.
Also, get a skateboard and keep it out in your living room. If you can put treats on it and she’ll go for them, that’s great, but no need to force her to interact with it. Its mere presence in a familiar place will help it become a less scary object.
It’s interesting that you’ve begun to get stressed by the presence of skateboards, too. This is called a Conditioned Emotional Response. Something that is “conditioned” means it was “learned.” After all, you weren’t born disliking skateboards, but after many instances of experiencing stress in their presence thanks to your dog, they now elicit an emotional response.
Focus on changing her emotional state before you even think about her behavior.
But what if I started handing you a $100 bill every time you saw one? Your feelings would change pretty rapidly! This is called Counter Conditioning.
With dogs, we can usually accomplish this by pairing food with the scary thing in order to create a new association. For most people, this requires taking a mental leap of faith. If I tell you to shove bacon bits into your dog’s mouth every time she barks at a skateboard, I bet you’ll say “This will just reward the barking.”
But, remember, I want us to focus on changing her emotional state before we even think about her behavior. It’s most likely the underlying emotions (in this case, fear) causing the barking to begin with. If we can eliminate the fear, we can probably eliminate the barking altogether. And we can very likely eliminate the fear by forging a new association: skateboards equal bacon.
It’s important to note, however, that you cannot engage in counter conditioning without taking the other steps I’ve outlined. If she is at the apex of her fear, she probably isn’t going to eat the bacon, just like $100 probably wouldn’t get your attention if you are in a situation where you were truly scared for your life.
Engage in this kind of counter conditioning at a distance when the stimulus isn’t overwhelming.
That’s why you must engage in this kind of counter conditioning at a distance when the stimulus isn’t overwhelming. In fact, it might be worth seeing if you can find a skateboarder who’d work with you a few days a week, riding his skateboard (or even just standing on it) at enough of distance where your dog can see it but isn’t overwhelmed. Find a distance she can handle, then feed her something delicious every time she looks at it.
With time, see if your skateboarder can move a little closer without eliciting a reaction from your dog.
As far as your own fears go, unfortunately, I don’t think anyone will actually start handing you cash when skateboards appear. But, if you follow my advice, you might start salivating at skateparks!