If you've been following along in our blog, you know that Vinny has always gotten overstimulated by petting and grooming activities. Trying to groom him, and often just pet him sweetly, results in him turning to mouth my hand and grooming tools. If I continue, the mouthing gets more intense and he begins to also move his body around more. If I continue still, he also becomes vocal and then ... well, it's all over.
He had gotten so much better until about 3 weeks ago. He's 5 months old now and his behaviors appear to be reverting backwards in a few areas, but they are now more intense than when he was smaller because he is now a much bigger boy!
Vinny is now well aware of his marker (clicker) signal, and that it is followed by a reinforcer for certain behaviors. He knows that his behaviors can drive that marker.
I have been working with him by reinforcing calm behaviors when I touch, pet and groom him. I started with just touching him - this was a review for him, but I wanted to start in an area that he could be successful. I touched him calmly and then followed by giving him a treat. I allowed him to feel the touch first, before the food appeared, and I fed him the food straight ahead of his nose with his nose facing forward and not at my touching hand. By reinforcing him with his head away from the hand that was touching him, he did not have the opportunity to begin mouthing me, and he will learn to keep his face away from the hand petting or grooming him (eventually).
After reviewing this a few times, I moved on to stroking or scratching him lightly just for a moment before feeding. I was still not using a marker signal at this point because I needed both hands - one to touch and one to have that treat ready super quick by his nose. When I saw that he was making the choice to turn his head forward for the treat when he felt me petting him, I moved on.
Adding a second stroke or longer scratching with one hand while I continued to feed treats was the next step. Only for a short period of time at first and then gradually building up to longer periods of time. At first I fed treats one right after the other quickly. But it didn't take long to be able to space out those treats more and more and build up the duration of the stroking. As I can spread the treats out a bit, I can then begin using the marker signal to pinpoint calm behaviors.
Now I have progressed to stroking with grooming tools. I can do several strokes at a time with Vinny remaining in place and calm (no mouthing or vocalizing, and sitting or standing still) between marking appropriate behaviors. If he gets up and walks away, that is ok. It is his choice. He will come back if he wants to do more. If he moves away, that is ok too. I just stop and wait. He will come back closer when he's ready.
I do allow him to turn and investigate a touch with my hand or the grooming tool, and I allow him to sniff the grooming tools before touching him with them so he knows what I'm going to be doing. After only a few sessions, I am so pleased and already seeing a big change in his behaviors.
This is good because his big-boy Collie coat is starting to come in and will require a lot of grooming in the future. I am so pleased that I can create choices for Vinny so he can be a willing participant in his grooming and care.
This video was taken today - I tried to groom him before our training session so maybe I could get a video of his previous behavior for you - but he sat still like a champ waiting for his reinforcers. And, so, what you see is not the flailing, mouthing and yelling that was his normal grooming behavior. This is our 3rd session and you can see he is attentively waiting for his marker and reward. When he moves as if he is uncomfortable, I don't force him. I wait or move to groom a different spot for a moment. When I groom his body, which we've worked on more, I can groom longer before reinforcing. When I work with his ear and his tail or rear of his body, which we have not worked on specifically, I sometimes only swipe a couple times before rewarding.
This is a session in its entirety. The only part cut in the middle was when I had to go check on something in the middle. It is a bit long (8 minutes appx.) but you can see in real time, how often I am reinforcing still and how he is responding. When you see him startle and move his head around, he is responding to his marker signal and is waiting for the food!