Perception Modification: Empowering Animals to Cope with Stressors & Manage Their Emotions

Empowering Animals to Cope with Stressors & Manage Their Emotions

Perception Modification: The process of changing an animal’s perception of an event or stimulus, as evidenced by his changed response to the event or stimulus when compared to a previous baseline. This is most effectively

done through a conditioning process where the event/stimulus is paired with a conditioned reinforcer or punished in order to transfer the value of the reinforcer or punisher to the event/stimulus. (Cover, “An Introduction to Bridge and Target Trainng Technique, 1990, revised 2000) [This definition is also cited in the IMATA Glossary , Hurley, J and Scaramozzino, J, 1998]

You can think of this process as one of breaking an aversive (or scary, or overly exciting) challenge/distraction into tiny pieces, pairing each piece with reinforcers, and then reassembling the behavior once the tiny parts have been transformed in the animal’s perception. The result is that the animal does not just ignore or tolerate events that were previously aversive, they often learn to really enjoy the things previously feared (hated, etc). Similarly, you can change things that were previously attractive to neutral or aversive things, by careful management of consequences (contingencies).

Cycles:  A process of introducing a challenge to an animal, bridging, releasing the challenge, bridging and then having a rest equal to the duration of the challenge introduction (or longer, if the animal’s condition warrants). The goal is to keep the animal in a relaxed, non-reactive state at all time, or in an alert state, focused on its trainer, but ignoring the challenge. (Cover, 2002)

Basically, this is a formula for changing an animal’s perception of a stimulus, item, event, etc.

Take whatever animal needs coping skills, and put him in a relaxed position.

Take a few minutes to put this relaxation on cue – I often use deep massage, but often just focusing on the animal will serve excellently.

During the exercises, the animal’s job is to stay calm and focused on you.

If possible, work with a co-trainer to introduce the problem. This person will start beyond the perimeter at which the problem produces a reaction from the animal. He will then bring the problem one step in, (bridge), one step out (bridge) and then (VERY importantly) rest – for an amount of time equal to the trial, or longer, as required for the animal to return to baseline calmness.

Next trial, two steps in (bridge), two steps out (bridge), rest…

Next trial, 4 steps in, 4 out,

Then 8 in, 8 out, etc, till you are to the animal, at which point you can either start the same cycling process to go around/behind the animal, or you can back up and change a variable – such as the animal being used as a distraction, the quality or speed of motion, added distractions. At all times, the trainer handling the “problem” or distraction, should be reading the animal being trained. The object is to move the animal forward as quickly as possible without ever letting him break his
training/focus/calmness. If the animal being trained starts to show the first sign of excitation, the 2nd trainer, stops dead in his tracks, and then slowly removes the “problem”. This makes it so by getting excited, the animal
being trained loses the adrenalizing stimulus – so if he likes it (as in likes the catharsis of aggression) he loses out by starting to show any interest in the adrenalizing stimulus, or indeed, any change in behavior at all.

Meanwhile, the trainer handling the animal working on developing coping skills, stands or sits with the dog, giving the command for the conditioned relaxation (after a sit or down perhaps), and then supplies intermediate bridges peppered with terminal bridges at the
closest point, and the end of the cycle. The animal being trained will usually quickly start to focus on the face of the trainer, and to look away from the approaching distraction. That is a desired sign. It shows that the dog is planning to resist temptation, and so is trying to avoid temptation.

This process, when done correctly, is extremely boring to watch. It looks like nothing is happening. However, it brings rapid, lasting results.

It is important to change only one aspect of the distraction at a time. The “rest” is very important. The conditioned relaxation is very important. The intermediate bridging is very important. I can post directions for teaching intermediate bridges, if people are interested. It takes less than five minutes. The predictability of the cycles and the rests seems to help the animals hold out till the end of the trial. Quickly, things progress to the point that events can be totally random.

I am making a video showing this process with a dog aggressive dog, but it is not ready yet.

If you are working on something that is not portable, like getting an animal to change his perception of going into the water, you can start by bringing a bit of water to the animal, but you can also take the animal to the beach, go out of reach of the water, and cycle in and out with the dog, going toward and then away from the water, bridging at the step closest in and the step closest out, and intermediate bridging for all the appropriate demeanor in between.

If you are teaching an animal to voluntarily stand for blood collection, first the syringe, and later the needle, and finally the syringe with the needle, make the cycles in and out. (by the way, we always tell the animal what is coming, so he can mentally prepare for the challenge – we start to see tangible evidence that he is doing this).

If you are teaching an animal notto grab food, the hand with the apparently available food makes the cycles in and out – AND disappears if the animal breaks his concentration on the trainer. We then extrapolate to teach the animal to do behaviors in the presence of food,

ignoring it. (I work a group of horses with the bucket of food sitting on the ground amidst everything, and the horses act like they do not realize it is there, but they are acutely aware of the food’s presence.

In any case, this is an extremely useful tool, and I hope that this time I have given enough information that others can put it to work.


Please feel free to contact me personally if you want more information on any of the things I have introduced here.






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