Wetsuits vs High Viz – Generalisation in Dogs

Does your dog seem to dislike anyone dressed in high viz clothing? Do they actively bark and lunge at them? Or maybe just seem a bit uncomfortable when passing by?

Generalisation in dog training is often utilised to ensure our dogs can follow cues such as ‘Sit’ in any environment, rather than being perfectly ‘obedient’ at home or in their training class, but seeming to forget what the word means when at the park. ‘Sit’ is one of the most used cues by dog owners (sometimes overused, but thats for another blog) and as such our dogs learn to ‘Sit’ in lots of different situations and environments and do not rely on the context to understand the cue.

So generalisaiton training is really important, but dog’s don’t always need us to train them to generalise. Sometimes they do this all by themselves and not always in the way we would wish. Humans clothed in Hi-viz are just one example where dogs seem to react negatively. This could be because the postman sometimes wears a Hi-Viz waistcoat and not many dogs are happy to see the postman on their territory. Or maybe its the noisey workmen that our dog’s remember when they see the bright yellow or orange jackets. Some people suggest that dogs see fluorescent colours differently to humans which could cause an uncomfortable reflection or distort the shape of the person wearing it. Which ever situation our dogs remember, they seem to have paired the negative experience with the bright coloured clothing and now see any human dressed in this way as scary or threatening and therefore react accordingly.

Can this self-trained generalisation work in a positive way though? Well that’s where the Wetsuits come in! Bare with me here 🙂

My boy JJ has been reactive to unfamiliar humans and dogs from a young age, partly because of a temperament that leans towards nervous and partly because of a painful spinal condition that was undiagnosed for his first 4 years. So when I booked him in for his first hydrotherapy session to help manage his newly diagnosed scoliosis it was after a long chat with the owner and lead hydrotherapist Harriet, in which I explained JJ’s sensitive nature and tendency to act aggressively when scared. Millhaven Hydrotherapy had been recommended by a dog trainer friend of mine who new JJ’s issues, but I still asked plenty of questions. Harriet at Millhaven put my mind at ease as soon as she told me about her own sensitive boy and filled me with hope that JJ could get the help he needed without causing the stress that new environments often bring for him.

The first session went incredibly well both Harriet and Jo avoided eye contact with JJ and let him suss out the new environment without putting any pressure on him. I put his little floatation coat on so as not to spook him by a stranger handling him and I brought the advised squeezy cheese to keep him motivated while in the water treadmill. Harriet and Jo also supplied JJ with treats during the breaks all without giving him eye contact or trying to handle him. A little game with a new toy after his session sealed the deal as far as JJ was concerned.

It was this completely hands off introduction to hydrotherapy that allowed JJ to stay relaxed and curious about his surroundings and ever since he has loved his regular sessions with Harriet and will wait eagerly for the tradmill door to be opened so he can get started. Over the months JJ has visited Millhaven he has met several new members of staff, both male and female (as with many reactive dogs, JJ is a little more wary of men) and to my surprise JJ has barely seemed to notice that a new person is handing him the treats and keenly eyeing his gait while he trots away in the water. So is my boy transformed? No, not completely. Although my continued training has visibly reduced his fearful reactions to the new and different whether human or animal, he still shows initial fear when encountering a new human in an enclosed space. So why not at hydrotherapy? I considered whether it was the now familiar environment where he knows he gets lots of yummy treats and people provide new toys to play with. This of course will provide a relaxed, more positive state of mind to start with, but in other environments in which he feels safe he will still bark at strangers approaching. This is where his self-learnt generalisation comes in. Every person he has met at hydrotherapy wears a black wetsuit. So as our dogs learn that people dressed in high-viz are associated with a negative experience , JJ has learnt that people in wetsuits provide fun and treats.

We have progressed a long way from that first session of no eye contact and hands off treatment. JJ now gazes lovingly into Harriet’s eyes (she is his favourite) and will let people look at him, talk directly to him and give him fuss. Harriet is even able to handle his back legs (the area affected by his condition) and can put his floatation jacket on and take it off again without complaint, despite it having to go over his head (another thing he isn’t keen on).

When we attended our hydrotherapy session today, which is our third under the new government guidelines that mean I cannot go in with him, he gave the new wetsuit clad person that greeted him a very brief sniff, then rushed happily towards Harriet without so much as a glance back at me!

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