A few months ago, my Border Collie Gracie started having panic attacks. She heard noises from our neighbors upstairs that sounded like marbles being dropped. Every time she heard the clanking sounds she would bolt, pant heavily, and scramble up into my lap.
I began working on counter-conditioning her to the sound. I kept a cup of “jackpot” treats on hand at all times. Jackpot, or high value treats, are special foods like chicken, hot dogs, or cheese– stuff much more special than the dry dog biscuits I use every day. A jackpot has to be something the dog only gets during training. If you use dog biscuits during training, save the jackpot treats for something the dog needs extra work on, like a phobia, or aggression.
When I heard footsteps upstairs I was ready– if there are people upstairs, it’s a good indicator the marble noise is on its way. The second a marble dropped, I threw some chicken for Gracie. Gracie is so food motivated that even in her panic she would still take the food. Every single time she heard that sound, chicken rained from the sky.
After just a few repetitions I started to notice that she wasn’t panicking as much. She was still nervous, but she didn’t leap into my lap anymore. She jumped up and panted, then ate the chicken. As the marbles kept rolling around upstairs, I kept feeding her chicken, and her breathing slowed down. She wasn’t looking up at the ceiling anymore.
Then it happened. The sign every trainer looks for, the sign that let’s you know it’s working. A marble dropped, and instead of panicking, Gracie looked at me, in anticipation of the treat. She got a handful of them.
Gracie doesn’t have panic attacks anymore. It’s hard to even remember them. She still comes running when there are sounds from upstairs, looking for her chicken. Once in a while I give her a treat, but usually I just give her a good rubdown and a lot of praise.
A few weeks after I began counter conditioning Gracie to the marble sound, I finally met my marbles-loving upstairs neighbor. She turned out to be a very nice person. I told her what happened, and she promptly put down a rug. Why didn’t I think of that in the first place?
Ellen Watkins trains dogs in New York City. Her company, Graceful Canine, specializes in behaviors of the urban dog, like difficultly spending time home alone, or barking at every dog on the street. Her secret identity is guitarist for the Wharton Tiers Ensemble. A more detailed explanation of her use of clicker training to calm Gracie may be found on her Facebook page.