Bing Blog #1

"The Barking Problem" -- November 1, 2005

So now I have seen “single event learning” take place right in front of my eyes. Bing has developed some severe car anxiety as a result of seemingly innocent behavior on the parts of Pete and me. Here’s what happened.

We drive the dogs to a park in the morning so we can walk them off leash. At the end of the walk, we often will throw a tennis ball with a Chuck-It for Acacia, our 7 year old Belgian Sheepdog. This was the first time Bing was going to see the tennis ball game. When the ball came out of the car, Acacia got excited and started barking loudly and repeatedly (her usual behavior). That led to Montana barking, and Maddy followed suit. So of course Bing felt that he needed to join in! But being a 4-month-old puppy, and a precocious male Belgian Sheepdog to boot, he got very excited and started to jump on Acacia. Acacia didn’t appreciate this and told him off, very forcefully (but without damage). We put Bing in his crate in the car, and proceeded to play the game. All of the dogs got excited and started to bark each time the ball was readied to be thrown for Acacia. This happened for each of the 3 or 4 ball tosses, and then we went home.

That’s all it took.

Now, every time Bing gets in the crate in the car and there are other dogs present, he barks. It took a while for me to realize that he was anxious; for a long time we just thought he had made an association and had learned to bark while in his crate. Wrong. The anxiety increased gradually over the weeks, to the point where it’s almost unsafe to drive.

For a while, we gave him rawhides and other chews, or stuffed a Kong for him to work on. At first, peanut butter was great; it kept him busy. Then I tried frozen meatballs in the Kong. They just frustrated him even more, until he got to the point where he’d bark at the Kong with his face in the crate bed, and that led to the ripping and shredding of the crate bed. So far he has completely destroyed two crate beds.

But don’t get this puppy wrong. He LOVES the car. He can’t wait to get into it. He can’t wait to get into that crate, but as soon as the back hatch of the car starts to close, he starts to make noise. Lots of noise. He’s now 6 months old, and the level of his anxiety has progressed to the point where we no longer take him in the crate, and we drive separate cars to the park so he can be alone and calm.

So we are embarking on a new program.

Pete and I both have Honda Elements, but only mine has crates mounted on a platform. Now Bing only rides on the floor of the middle of the car, and he only rides alone, if at all possible. He’s somewhat better behaved in Pete’s car, so he can take him places with one other dog, but not more than one. While he’s in the car, we provide him with something to chew on if necessary. I have decided not to allow shredding, so once Bing is allowed to ride in a crate again I will have to put some rubber matting on the crate bottom that he won’t be able to shred. Otherwise he just slides around in there, making him even more animated. That’s the management part of the program.

Then there’s the operant conditioning part of the program. Loaded with treats and my clicker, we go out to the car. I wait for him to sit, and I click and treat him. I never ask him to do anything; I always wait for him to offer it. I want this puppy to be a thinking puppy!!! After a few repetitions of this, I reach out for the hatch handle. If he is sitting, I click and treat. If he stands, I just wait for him to sit, then click and treat. I progress little by little, making the handle click, then opening the hatch a bit, then halfway, then all the way. Then I do the same thing with lowering the gate. Once that is open, I open each crate latch, one at a time, and when he’s sitting, lift him into the crate.

Once there, I wait for him to lie down. After several clicks and treats of that, I reverse the process, slowly closing it all up. This is the most difficult part for him right now. His major sticking points have been when I open the gate, and when I close the hatch. These two actions seem to really be difficult for him; he’s barely able to maintain a sit or down for these. Today, I was able to close the hatch and take one step to the side, as if I were going toward the driver’s seat. He was able to do that, but he lost it when I went around to the side of the car from the back. At that point, he started barking and shredding, so I stopped and took him out of the car and finished the session. I do believe that removing him from the car is negative punishment for him.

I hope to make rapid progress so we can drive one car again soon!!


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