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TACT Case Study: Finch
FINCH BEFORE TACT:
Dan and I purchased Finch at eight weeks of age from a reputable breeder of wonderful field-line English Springer Spaniels. We had high hopes of enjoying the same dog sports and fun events that we participated in with our other dogs, such as agility competitions and long hikes in the woods. Finch was a quiet, affectionate puppy with a knack for learning. We brought him to our friends' houses and dog club meetings for socialization. He attended weekly obedience classes and caught on quickly.
Around 16 weeks of age, however, things started to change for the worse. Finch would alarm bark, first at unfamiliar dogs, then at unfamiliar people. As a professional dog trainer, I knew it was quite common for puppies of this age to go through a "fear period", during which they startle at strange things in the environment. With our veterinarian's support, Dan and I decided to keep him home for a couple of weeks in an effort to let him "outgrow" this period.
Things didn't improve. We took him to pet stores when people were unlikely to be present to reward Finch for watching dogs and people walking by. Unfortunately, many people couldn't resist rushing over to greet our freckle-faced little spaniel puppy, which only served to terrify Finch. He would respond by barking, rushing forward, and skittering backwards. His hackles would go up and his eyes looked like saucers.
Needless to say we were very concerned about Finch's reactivity, especially due to its early onset. Finch was only getting more sensitive to other people and dogs, and began barking as soon as he saw them. When he was six months old, our veterinarian prescribed Clomicalm with the goal of reducing his threshold so we could make some training progress.
The most heartbreaking part of his fear of strange people was that, at home, he was the sweetest dog on the planet. Finch lived to snuggle, play, and give kisses. (He still does!) As a young puppy before this reactivity started, he would eagerly interact with new people and dogs. He never showed aggression towards the other people or dogs in the house.
It was around this time that I contacted Emma Parsons for her input on the situation. Emma was my Karen Pryor Academy instructor and she was willing to meet with Finch to give me some training ideas. At this meeting, she told me about TACT and suggested that I get in touch with Julie for lessons.
FINCH AFTER TACT:
Dan and I started taking Finch for weekly TACT sessions with Julie. We diligently worked on our homework, teaching him all of the foundation behaviors he needed to know. We were gradually able to work him closer and closer to Julie without ever putting him over-threshold. Now Finch and Julie are buddies, and she can give him massages, feed him treats, and even get kisses from him! Finch had not made a new "friend" in over three months due to his reactivity. It was wonderful to see him interact with Julie with no reservations or skepticism on his part.
At this time, we have been working on the TACT program for about two and a half months and just completed stage two. Our future training sessions will involve transferring Finch's new behaviors to new people, then new situations. It took about five weeks before we saw a significant change in his behavior at home, but once we hit that point, he started to progress by leaps and bounds. Previously, he was hyper-vigilant outside, constantly watching for people approaching. Now, he watches people walking past with relaxed interest and curiosity, wagging his tail. I think this is the most fascinating part of the TACT program - it actually changes the dog's association with people. Finch went from viewing new people as unpredictable, scary things to seeing them as an opportunity for earning reinforcement from me.
Dan and I still have plenty of work to do with Finch, but the progress we have made has given us hope that he can enjoy an active lifestyle with us.
Katherine Ostiguy, KPA CTP Spring Forth Dog Services