When I was back in university, I took a class called "Environmental Psychology" that had a huge impact on how I looked at the world. Right from the first class, I learned an important lesson. Context can affect our views and behaviors!
At the time, I lived and breathed teaching children and families about nature and the environment animals live in. So, when I read the class description, I thought the class was going to be about how the natural environment affects human behavior. Imagine my surprise when I stepped into the classroom the first session and found out that we were going to study how the built environment affects humans behaviors! An example would be how we move through a shopping mall affects our purchasing choices. I seriously considered dropping the class but decided that while it was different than what I thought, it might prove to be of interest and value after all. It was!
In that class, we looked closely at how every part of the environment can change how we interact with it. From the width and flow of hallways to the color of the walls and height of the ceiling affects if we are attracted to that location, how we feel in it, what we do in it and how long we stay there. It can even affect what we purchase while we are in it!
Changing the Environment Changes the Behavior
Just changing the appearance of the entrance to a store can make it more appealing to enter into. Choosing the design and comfort of a chair can affect how long the customer stays. If a chair is comfortable, a customer will stay longer. If the chair is uncomfortable, they will leave more quickly. Fast food chains like McDonald's achieved a higher turnover through their restaurants for many years when they used hard ugly yellow chairs attached to the tables. Conversely, family restaurants who want you to stay longer and eat more, offer more comfortable padded dining booths that afford privacy and often some sound dampening. Deliberately placing small items like gum, candy and magazines near cash lines at grocery stores takes advantage of people's impulsiveness while waiting. Most of this behavior response is unconscious and is conditioned by repeated exposure and becomes a habit.
How it Applies to a Service Dog in Training
The knowledge from the field of environmental psychology is very relevant to training a service dog. For the most part, we choose and create the environment around our dogs. The size and design of the house and yard we choose to live in with them, the access to the house (the level of freedom they have), the arrangement of objects that are found within and extends to the emotional environment we create and especially the habits we get into all affect how our dog behaves to a large degree. Like us humans, much of this behavior response is unconscious and becomes habitual.
Good Crate Habits
Let's start with a crate. It's a small confined space often placed in a quiet location in the house. Often there is a soft cushion in it. The dog is put in the crate when we want him to rest or take a nap. We will sit quietly nearby. Maybe he's given a food toy to occupy and calm him at first. If the crate door is left open, we may find that the dog chooses to go in during the day when he wants some quiet time. That combination of things teaches him that being in the crate means he can be calm and relaxed within one.
In teaching the crate, we may also see a dog that can calm down in a crate but not when laying out in the room with the family. That's likely because he's learned that the only place he gets a break or needs to be calm is when he is in the crate. At other times someone is interacting with him or entertaining him. The family needs to learn to build in some quiet time with the dog out of the crate. Maybe it starts in the evening, when everyone is tired from the day, the dog cuddles with the handler on the floor or couch. The handler might start with a massage. Then as the dog has learned to calm there, just the warmth of laying next to the handler or on a particular mat is calming. With repeated exposure, the dog learns to be calm out of the crate as well. The same can apply with a dog that is calm in the car but not out on a walk. His handler has likely gotten into the habit of putting the dog into the car (a small quiet stationary place) after the walk, perhaps to talk with friends, but never set up the situation for the dog to learn to be calm and rest out of the car. Next time, bring a mat and have the dog settle on the mat on leash next to you as you talk with your friend.
Coming and Going
When we come back into the room or house after an outing and we interact with our dog in a positive way when she's excited (jumping up etc), then we are conditioning (making it a habit) that excitement. Instead, if we come in and get busy doing something else, and wait to interact when the dog is calmer (it only takes two or three minutes), we will have a calmer dog when we come and go. (Check out this calming video)
Being Calm on Outings
A dog that is habitually revved up before, during or after training sessions or outing (to burn off extra energy first) conditions a high adrenaline response before and during training. Chasing balls triggers adrenaline for example. That is the opposite of what we want in an assistance dog. Choosing less adrenalizing ways to expend extra energy with a service dog is ideal. A long walk at a steady speed can take the edge off and have a calming effect because serotonin is released during the sustained exercise.
Settling in outdoor setting.
Photo used with permission by Ingrid Mcue 2021.
Making Better Choices of Reinforcers
Carefully choosing what reinforcers we use can make a huge impact on the present and future behavior of a dog. Our behavior, massage, food and play can all be used.
Using calm body language (avoiding flailing arms and excessive body movements) can help a dog stay calm. Moderating your voice (generally lower tones, speaking slowly and using softer volumes) can have an calming influence. Make sure to use calm sound and body movements at first, then teach him to remain calm even when your voice and body language tells him you are excited.
While massage is less exciting than food for most dogs, how you use it makes a big difference. Heavy fast pressure can actually excite some dogs. Generally long slow medium strokes are calming. Food can be calming (low value) as the chewing process calms a dog or it can be exciting if your dog loves all food and gulps it! Toy play can be super exciting or only moderately exciting. This doesn't limit play from your dog's repertoire, just be careful in why and when you choose to use it. If you want your dog to show more enthusiasm for a specific behavior, such as pulling forward guiding, then use toy play afterwards to increase the enthusiasm.
If your dog gets excited about food (as most Golden retriever and Labrador retrievers do!) then use massage to consistently reinforce a calm behavior or task. If your dog doesn't value a massage, then you need to teach him it has value!
Training in Public Places
Taking a dog to an environment that has constant movement, such as a dog park or busy mall, and never teaching him he can be calm there results in a dog that expects to be doing something at all times. Instead, take his mat and settle at a distance to watch. Use massage to help him stay calm. Do it for short periods and only increase the duration when he is successful at lower durations. Only then incrementally decrease the distance from the excitement.
When we do public access training, if all we do is train in motion the entire time we are out, the dog never learns to be calm or rest away from home. They learn to expect to be "on" the whole time. Instead, we need to teach them that being calm and relaxed is in fact what they can do most of the time when away from home. We need to get into the habit of adding calm settle sessions away from home. Do them often in an outing. Then build time into those. This is hard for many people, especially if they are uncomfortable away from home. You may need to have someone else to do this part of the training for you until the dog is ready to have you accompany them. A family member or trusted friend can do this or hire an experienced trainer to take on this part of the training, then transition it over to you.
Here is a service dog sleeping in a hospital.
(photo used with permission from Sarah Magnan 2021)
Calm During Anxiety and Panic Attacks
If a dog consistently sees, especially from a young age, the handler being emotionally affected by a trigger or environment, that dog can become sensitized to those events or situations. There is research to support that. So, we either start with an older dog that has had her personality shaped by a more stable environment before we start training anxiety-related tasks or we can try to avoid letting her experience stressful situations until she is old enough to handle it. Most dogs start getting to emotional and social maturity at 18 months of age or later.
Consider Your Own Environment
So knowing that the physical and emotional environment affect your dog, what things do you do to unknowingly excite your dog every day? What specific things can you do to change the environment around your service dog in training to change his response to a calmer one?
I am so glad I stayed in the class as it was a life lesson of considering the environment's affect on not only human behavior but that of service dog behavior!
If you'd like to get some specific ideas on what environmental changes are possible for your environment and identify what habits you and your family might have that are working against you teaching your service dog in training to be calm, book a web cam session with me!