It is a curious fact of behavior that the emotional state in which a cue is learned carries over into the performance of the behavior. This means that cues can be classically conditioned to have not only a physiological response — like Pavlov’s dogs salivating when they heard the bell — but an emotional one, as well.
Once you know this, you can use it to your advantage. For example, if you want your dog to come at high speed and with enthusiasm, you can train your recall with your dog in a very excited state. If you know you’re likely to use a behavior in a really stressful situation, it’s a good idea to teach the cue with the dog calm, relaxed and happy, so the dog can relax when you need him to. (This is also why we train most management cues before we need them, because when the dog is stressed or frightened or aroused, it’s already too late to teach something new.)
Today, I had a chance to see how well the emotional state of our vet prep cues carried over to real-world performance. (And because I’m a training nerd, I took video!)
Valenzia came down with a bad infection last night, so we had to make a trip to the vet today. Since it was short notice, the office offered to squeeze us in between clients in their already-packed schedule. Very few dogs enjoy visiting the vet — Valenzia is no exception to this — and when you’re dealing with a dog who is terrified of other dogs, spending half an hour in the waiting room crammed between a Great Dane, a Weimaraner, a Shih Tzu puppy and a cat in a carrier is a real stress test! I used plenty of treats to keep Valenzia happy and focused on me during our wait, but even so, by the time we got to the exam room she was whining, panting, pacing on her short lead, and her eyes were bloodshot.
We had a minute to ourselves while some tests were run in the other room, so I took the opportunity to have Valenzia practice hopping on and off the exam table for treats, figuring she could use a positive experience to make up for the unpleasant needles and thermometers that were about to happen on that table when the vet returned.
I should have taken a baseline video to show how stressed she was before we started working, but unfortunately I didn’t think of it at the time. Even so, you can hear how hard she’s panting at the beginning of the clip, and see in her body language that she’s not comfortable. Her ears are out to the sides, her shoulders are hunched, and she snatches the first few treats from my hand with her teeth.
Now, watch what happens over the course of just three or four repetitions of hopping on and off the table: The panting stops. Her ears come forward. Her head comes up. She begins taking the treats nicely, using her tongue instead of snapping at them. In the second clip (taken about thirty seconds after the first), she is treating the table as if it’s her mat, lying calmly and putting her head down for treats.
Interestingly, even during the unpleasantness of the exam and injections that came a few minutes later, Valenzia remained more calm than usual the entire time she was on the table, just from those couple of minutes of positive cues and relaxation when she first entered the room. How much nicer this is — for dog, handler AND vet — than having a stressed, panicky dog who has to be wrestled onto the table and held in place!
So, next time you have your dog at the vet’s office, make sure you take a moment to give your dog a breather with some fun, easy cues and rewards. Your dog (and probably your vet!) will thank you.