Why Reactive Dogs Belong in TDI Classes

Hello Internet,

Today’s somewhat provocative post is about my experience with the Little Beast in her therapy dog class. Lila’s not old enough to pass the test, but I enrolled her in our trainer’s (one of the many wonderful trainers we’ve been luck enough to work with) therapy dog class at around eight months. This seemingly insane decision turned out to be one of my better brain waves. The trainer we work with explained to me that her entire TDI class is built around the reactive dog’s owner’s most powerful tool: counter conditioning. Counter conditioning, or CCing to those in the know, centers around replacing the negative association a dog has with something with something more positive. In the TDI class, a sort of preemptive CCing was used; a novel stimulus would be introduced to an average dog, such as a walker moving across the room, and paired with cheese whiz; the backbone of dog training: cheese whiz.

Lila WAS scared of this bucket pre CCing to it

Lila WAS scared of this bucket pre CCing to it

For example, if a bicycles have previously heralded fear and emotional discomfort, the goal is to replace that emotion with the lavish influx of delicious treats into the dog’s mouth; the bicycle becomes the predictor of food. This won’t necessarily eliminate the fear of something, though it can, more likely it will shift the dog’s focus from the stimulus to you, the bearer of treats. I’m scared of spiders, but if every time I saw a spider someone gave me a cookie, I would see a spider then immediately ask for my cookie. Big Beast is a simple creature.

Cookies are the most important

Cookies are the most important

Since this therapy dog class, and I assume many others, is built around creating positive associations with a multitude of stimuli, it is perhaps ideally suited to a fearful dog. Obviously depending on the dog this could be a terrible decision as it inevitably entails exposure to other dogs and people. I think there are four main elements that will allow a reactive dog to be able to safely participate in a TDI class:

1. The dog must be able to remain under threshold in a class setting,

2. The trainer must understand the specific work that the reactive dog requires and how it differs from the work a typical dog would be doing in the same class

3. The dog owner must be able to take the dog out of the room whenever necessary 

4. The training exercises must be modified in order to accommodate the dog’s needs

If all these necessary elements are present, I would argue that the ability to expose a reactive dog to unusual stimuli in a controlled setting is an invaluable opportunity for effective counter conditioning and desensitization work.

CCing makes Lila happy

Because Lila loves class and is perhaps the most intense teacher’s pet I have ever seen (ever seen a tough as nails trainer give a dog a cupcake for jumping? yeah, she’s got them wrapped around her paw), she shined in her TDI class. She was even able to participate in the final test and completely won the evaluator’s heart. Her trainer, the evaluator, and myself are all confident she will be able to pass the TDI test on her first birthday. While I don’t think she would enjoy therapy dog work and would not likely expose her to those situations, the certification signifies something very profound in our work as a team.

We're a team

We’re a team

What do you think internet? Am I blowing smoke? Are you inspired to look into a local TDI class for your fearful dog? Am I just the luckiest to have a dog that will work so hard for me (hint: yes)? Let me know!

All the best Internet,

Little and Big Beast

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