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STARR Protocol for Reactive Dogs
Working with reactive or fearful dogs is a specialty of Pawsitive Vybe. The key to dealing with these troubled dogs is allowing the dog to make decisions – simple decisions – that will help to center and ground them and to enable them to deal with environmental distractions on their own terms.
The Pawsitive Vybe STARR Protocol is an elegant system for handling reactive and/or reactive dogs.
Skinner Rocks but Pavlov Rules
The realm of rational decisions (operant behavior) are dictated by the classically conditioned state.
The woman who stands on the chair in the kitchen shrieking, broom in hand, in the presence of a mouse, is not making a rational decision. She canʼt. Sheʼs over threshold. Sheʼs making a silly decision, a decision that is at the mercy of her classically conditioned state due to seeing a mouse. The rational decision would be to take the broom and sweep the mouse out of the room. Spiderʼs? Get a paper towel and squish the spider. Duh…
Until the woman is under threshold in the presence of the mouse or spider, there will be irrational and crazy reactions due to the classically conditioned state that the trigger stimulus creates.
What you want to do with your reactive or fearful dog is foster an alternative classically conditioned state then work on the operant end. You bring the dog under threshold, and then go to work and keep him there.
Set the Tone
Setting the tone is about laying a proper classically conditioned state for work as you shift from a stable environment to an unstable one.
You want to reframe the dog’s understanding of the situation from a high energy or nervous emotional state with the expectation of play, aggression or fear, to an emotional state of calm with the expectation of work.
Whether it’s getting out of the Car, a Crate, or a Door to outside, any time you are getting ready to make a situational change, you want to set the tone and get the dog prepared to work with you before taking the dog into the new situation that may scare or excite the dog.
There It is!
Normally when the dog sees their trigger: a strange dog, a lone stranger, dogs playing, or whatever, a descending spiral of behavior starts. It goes something like this:
[icon_list style=”font-size:18px;color:#ffba00;” margin-bottom:0;]
[icon_list_item type=”crosshairs”] Dog takes notice of the stimulus: There it is! [/icon_list_item]
[icon_list_item type=”bell”] The ears perk up: Iʼm interested! [/icon_list_item
[icon_list_item type=”tachometer”] Heart races and body tenses: Iʼm aroused. [/icon_list_item]
[icon_list_item type=”rocket”]Dog Explodes: Iʼm gone! (or stop holding me back!) [/icon_list_item]
Marking the exact moment the dog takes notice of the trigger stimulus,There It Is!, short circuits this descending spiral of behavior by changing the progression right from square one.
At stage 1, the exact moment that the dog looks at the stimulus, mark and reinforce (preferably with food) directly in front of the handler forcing the dog to look away from their trigger to eat her cookie.
We believe this game is unique because it is the only game we can think of that is, at once, classical and operant conditioning.
Food is paired with the appearance of the trigger stimulus, reframing the classically conditioned state from trigger=heightened emotional state to trigger=food.
Then on the operant end, the act of looking at the stimulus leads to food reinforcement – behavior affects consequence.
The act of looking at the trigger stimulus becomes reinforcing in and of itself. Which leaves the reactive dog enjoying the act of looking at the trigger stimulus to get cookies on the handler and leaves the fearful dog enjoying the action of facing their fear. The classically conditioned state is addressed and the There It Is! behavior gives the dog a default behavior, a goto behavior, that allows them to perpetuate that classically conditioned state.
For both dog and handler the trigger stimulus becomes a tool for reinforcement instead of the object of the dogʼs drive or fear.
“Unsolicited eye contact, Attention as it’s called here at Pawsitive Vybe, is at the very root of our foundation and our philosophy.
If you have to fight for a dog’s attention you are already behind the 8-ball, especially so with reactivity, aggression, or fear. Pawsitive Vybe dogs give the handler unsolicited eye contact any time there is something of value or when the situation is boring. Given a strong foundation of Attention, dogs will look to their handler’s very frequently.
This handler focus has been a foundation of positive dog training and reactive dog management for quite some time, but it’s very hard to continuously keep a dog’s focus on the handler in the presence of awesome things (reactivity) or a fear trigger. Also, if we are totally successful in holding the dog’s attention, then at some point in time, the trigger stimulus can unexpectedly pop into her vision or bump into her space at a distance that is overwhelming.
If the trigger stimulus is unexpectedly sprung on a dog frequently when doing reactive dog work, the dog starts to distrust the continuous handler focus. And if it happens enough, anxiety or fear may become classically conditioned and triggered with the simple act of Attention with or without the trigger stimulus present.
In our version of reactive dog management, we ping pong between There It Is! (no cue) and Attention. We capture these behaviors and add value to each one to achieve a balance of environmental awareness and handler focus.
Too much scanning of the horizon, and we add some Attention. Too much Attention and we add some There It Is!.
The Release is an important aspect of reactive dog management.
The Release is the moment that the dog releases the trigger stimulus after noticing and becoming engaged with it. Usually this release happens towards the handler.
Ideally, you only have the opportunity to work on the Release after the dog has had some success with There It Is! and Attention in the presence of the trigger stimulus. But nobody is perfect, and the Release is often worked when the handler misses There It Is! or as recovery from a reactive response.
The Release is the hardest part of many behaviors like Leave It, Recall, and especially recovery from fear and reactivity. It needs to be reinforced — a ton. It should not be the initial criteria, as it is challenging and might not happen at all of the dog winds goes over threshold, but after the dog is stable the Release can be used for proofing the dog in stable environments and situations.
If at any time the situation becomes untenable for the dog, Retreat. Run Away! “Weʼre Outta Here!” Turn and move away from the situation regardless of what the dog is doing. Don’t wait! Just move.
When the dog releases the trigger stimulus, mark the Release and reinforce in Heel position. Continue to move away and reinforce the dog until the distance is great enough that the dog will stay under threshold. Take a deep breath and go back to work with There It Is!
Ideally you never have to Retreat, but nobody’s perfect and life is full of surprises. It is important to do a good job of reading, working, and managing situations so that the dog remains under threshold. Each time a Retreat is forced on the handler, it is not just a retreat in that particular session or situation, you and your dog will be taking steps back in terms of your training in general.
Once a reactive or fearful dog is stable and comfy, be prepared to shift gears and change tactics a bit to help the dog exist in the situation on her own. We’ve got a protocol for that too. It’s called DOC and will be outlined here on the blog in the near future.
In the meantime we’ll be fielding questions and discussing the STARR protocol in the comments below. Don’t be shy…