Losing Our Marbles

A few years ago, when we started the behaviour journey with Chuck, I came across a whole spectrum of advice from various sources, which ranged from firm whacks with a newspaper (no, thank you) to only praising good behaviour and ignoring the bad (that didn’t stop the bad stuff happening).

Choosing what is the right behavioural adjustment training for your dog really does depend on the personality and motivations of your dog.  What might work for a hungry labrador might not work as well for a prey-driven terrier where a good fight is actually completely thrilling.  Determining what will work as a training aid takes time because you need to work out what the hierarchy of high value “treats” are and how much of these things you need to get your dog to choose good behaviour over bad.  This is why for some dogs, especially prey-driven terriers, clicker training simply doesn’t work. The reward of a click (after extensive training by the book) just isn’t high-value enough. It can and does work for many many dogs, but four terriers later, it’s had very little effect in real-world scenarios for us.

I vaguely glossed over trigger stacking in my last post. A trigger is an action which will cause a reaction in your dog.  Can be anything, absolutely anything.  One by itself might be mildly irritating, and one cookie might make you feel better fairly quickly. It’s a bit like double entry accounting, but that’s a fairly dry metaphor, so here’s a different image:

Think of it as your bag of marbles.  Here’s a trigger-stacking day in the life of Chuck’s bag of marbles.  Chuck has a small but very precious collection of marbles.  He probably only has about 5 in his bag, but they’re truly special.  He takes them with him everywhere.

He’s sitting on his window bench with his bag of 5 marbles.  Olia jumps up to join him (with her enormous bag of 52 marbles) too quickly and accidentally jostles his side.  His bag of marbles shakes a little and the string is loosened.  Chuck warns her with a growl to take better care.  He could have lost a marble there.  

Chuck doesn’t have opposable thumbs to be able to tighten the drawstring on his bag of marbles, so he’s very much aware that whilst he still has his 5 marbles, they’re in a precarious position.  He’s now more alert to his surroundings in case anything happens to his bag of marbles. He’s more likely to react to any perceived threat to his open bag.

A delivery driver arrives and in the hurry to guard the house from this threat, his marble bag tips over and 1 marble goes missing.  This is bad news. But he still has 4 marbles, so perhaps the missing marble will turn up later. A little bit of chicken temporarily soothes the pain of the loss of that 1 marble. 

Amazingly, Olia has only lost 2 marbles in the chaos, she still has 50, she’s chilled about the loss of 2 boring marbles, but the little bit of chicken is absolutely brilliant, thanks! Her 2 marbles immediately appear and she’s even found an extra 3.  She now has 55 marbles! What a fantastic day.

Sulking about his 4 remaining marbles, Chuck comes out on a walk, clutching his bag close to his chest.  Perhaps the marble might be out there somewhere, so it’s worth a look. He spots another dog.  It has a bigger bag of marbles than his.  It’s off lead, showing off all the amazing marbles it has.  Olia is delighted, and would like to show off her bag of marbles too.  Maybe we could all play swapsies with our massive marble collections? Chuck is concerned, the other dog is coming too close to his precious small bag of marbles and what if that dog wants to steal a marble? We are already 1 marble down, and the bag is loose…. best be on the offensive here to protect the marbles.  Chuck barks and lunges at the off lead dog.  In the process he loses another marble.  That’s 2 marbles he’s lost already today and he’s very sorry, but a bit of chicken simply cannot replace the loss of 2 marbles.  The rest of the walk is tense, every slight noise or movement might be someone trying to steal his depleting supply of marbles.

Back at home, it’s lunchtime.  He has to put down his bag of marbles to eat. He carefully hides his bag of marbles, it’s such a good hiding place.  Because he only has 3 left, his stress levels are middling.  He knows Olia isn’t going to steal his marbles, because she has SO many anyway, so he leaves her alone wandering around but the humans in the house? They haven’t got special marble collections… in his effort to protect his hidden stash of 3 remaining marbles, if we get too close, he’s going to give a warning nip and tug. Because he knows from previous experience that we will stop moving near his marbles if he does that.  He has to, there’s only 3 left. He wouldn’t feel the need to do this if it was only 1 marble missing, but this is serious now.  He’s lost too many and his hiding place could be compromised at any moment.

But wait, he can smell the special marble-replenishing cake on the side. In Chuck’s world, cake is a high value treat, better than chicken, better than any toy. Not as good as a trip in the car, but it’s up there.

He goes to fetch his hidden bag of 3 marbles and carries it over to the special cake smell. One marble is there! He collects the missing marble and stores it safely in his bag. That’s better, we are back up to 4 marbles.  It’s still concerning, but it’s an improvement. Perhaps a nap might help? He goes into his crate for a few hours’ rest. When he wakes up rested, he sees that last remaining marble. Puts it safely in his bag.

Trigger stacking is important to notice in your dog.  You need to work out roughly how many marbles your dog has and how to help him protect and replenish his marble supply.  You can’t work on behavioural training when your dog has fewer marbles than normal.  They won’t be in a rational mind to learn.  Working with a full bag or ever-so-slightly-open bag is ideal.  You’re below the reactivity threshold. The potential for marble loss is there, but you can at that point work on learning new behaviours that will help your dog learn techniques to protect his marbles.

In my last post, I added a video of our after dinner game of musical statues, to teach Chuck that actually, I’m not out to steal his marbles when he’s carefully hidden them after his meals and i’m walking around.  I’m offering more marbles instead! Hell, I’m a walking marble factory!

However, I’m aware of his marble supply when choosing to start this new game.  He won’t learn the rules of the game if he’s already missing some marbles.  We can only play this new game when his marble supply is intact.  If he’s lost some of his marbles, I will let him search for them by himself, or offer a quick-fix replenishment and work on our new game when he has done his marble audit and is happy they are all present and secure.

Why do we need the rising hierarchy of treats to replenish marbles when a dog has lost more than one marble? Why is the situation so grave that more than one marble lost means one basic treat will not suffice?  There’s science behind it.

It’s fundamentally about cortisol levels.  Each single trigger, each marble, increases stress levels, linked to higher cortisol in the system.  When you lose marble after marble, and you layer trigger over trigger, cortisol rises.  Cortisol takes time to dissipate out of the system, so even after a trigger activity has happened, the cortisol it has created is still lingering (your marble is missing), and then you lose another marble so you’re adding another amount of cortisol on top of what is already there…  A high level of cortisol will take longer to deplete and so a higher amount of response is required to mitigate the reactivity and increase oxytocin into the system.