Science Rocks.

Quinn having an afternoon nap with the “original”

What a simple conditioning experiment taught me about counter conditioning and control.

A few months ago I did a brain dump about my journey helping one of my chihuahua crosses, Quinn to feel more comfortable around stranger dogs and to some degree stranger humans, especially ones that run up to you, look you straight in the eye and launch into “I’m about to pick up this dog” behaviour. Many found it helpful and that’s good. This is my promised part 2 brain dump, which will be made into a presentation. 

So the last document focused on using nose work as a foundation for counter conditioning Quinn to the appearance of other dogs in his immediate environment. If we were on the oval and someone with a dog appeared on the other side of the oval, he would fang off and attack them from behind. “NIP NIP NIP NIP NIPPEE”. Well that only happened once, because after that I knew how bad he was, but there were some close calls. Now, unless a dog comes right into his space, he pretty much ignores other dogs. Even when some dogs do run up to us he can cope, depends on the type of dog, the dog’s behaviour etc. It will never not blow me away. His body language is so interesting – he barks and carries on, you can tell he is telling them they are RUDE ARSE HOLES, but he is rarely defensive, never nips any more. Just barks and carries on and looks at me like he is saying “I still think they are turds, but I’m not scared any more Ma”.

Anyway, this is about his rocks.

Quinn has always been one of those Idoeverythingatonehundredmilesanhour kind of dogs. For the first maybe two years of his life the only times I saw any kind of real relaxation was at bed time. He would rest during the day, but it was that rest dogs do with one eye open and muscles tense, ready to go if needs be. So I decided, in my eternal quest to understand the application of behaviour analysis in the real world, to see what sort of conditioned response I could get to some novel object if I attempted to associate it with our bad time rituals. To see if I could have the thing CREATE the CALM in him that I saw at bed time. It had to be something that had no meaning to Quinn before we started the process, so I chose a rock. An ordinary rock. 

O.K., so I had my neutral stimulus (the rock) and I had my context that I wanted to associate with the rock. This is interesting already, because when we think of the process of classical conditioning we (well I do, and I am pretty sure most other animal trainers do as well, but I might just be slow), usually think that we associate ONE THING TO ANOTHER THING. Thats the way Pavlov studied it, right BELL THEN MEAT over and over. But we learn to associations to GROUPS OF THINGS all the time right, we call groups of things CONTEXTS amongst other things and we know that different contexts will illicit different emotional responses. We get excited thinking about going to a concert of our favourite band (ONE CONTEXT). We get uncomfortable when we are on our way to the dentist (A VERY DIFFERENT CONTEXT). So when we consistently experience the same stimuli together, conditioning happens the same. There is more to this, but that’s not for now. 

1. First thing I did was have the rock on my bed side table and when Q would come into bed and ask to be let in under the cover (he did this by scratching at me around the covers), before I lifted the cover up to let him under, I would reach out and get the rock and show it to him, usually saying something like; “Have a look at this lovely rock Quinnie! How nice is it?” Then I would let him under and put the rock by him while I gave him a nice massage. He would ask for that hands on time, again by pawing or pushing his head into me. He would be so tense he would do that groan noise you do when you are getting a good massage or having a grand old stretch and your muscles are loosening.

2. I did this every night. That’s a total lie. I did it most nights. Some times I would forget and do it later if he went out for a wee and came back to bed etc. But I am the most disorganised person in the world, so doing it every night the same way was never going to happen. So relax.

3. Now I think about it, sometimes when I was on the ball I would bring the rock across and have it on the bed and it became obvious that Q was beginning to orientate towards it in several different ways. He would lie near it, he would paw at it, he would nose it, lick it… but it’s important to remember I wasn’t training him to behave in a certain way towards the rock, this was about seeing what and even if the rock could influence his behaviour towards calmer, more focused behaviour.

4. So I began to see orientation towards the rock and began to bring it out at other times – not when he was over the top, but when he was just mooching around. I would make the big deal about it again in a calm way; “Oh Quinnie, can you believe what I have for you? I have your rock…” and I would put it down near him or whatever. Then one day he began to play with it like a weirdo… This was during the time we were living in hell because he had had surgery to fix luxating patellas and he was crated for 6 weeks post op. Playing involved digging in the blankets for the rock, rolling on the rock, licking the rock. I had to take it off him, he was moving around so much. He had never and has never to date (he is 8 years old at the writing of this) played with a toy in that way. Dog toys get tugged and ripped and rooted, but his rock play has always been specific.

5. Quinn had trouble with people arriving. Even people he knew well and enjoyed interacting with once he got over them ARRIVING. There were only a few times where people interacted towards him inappropriately (you know the direct eye contact, leaning over him, basically putting too much social pressure on him) and he would crack the shits – growls etc if he felt trapped. So I decided that I would have some of his rocks (they had multiplied) by the front door, in the letterbox and basically ready so that when people arrived they could MAGICALLY BRING HIM A ROCK. People were told not to look at him, talk to him etc etc. I would hand them the rock and say “Make a big deal of how amazing this rock is and make sure you say “rock” a lot”. They would and then they would either put the rock on the lounge and walk away or give it to me and I would give it to Quinn. It was miraculous. He went from barking and backing off to running up with tail happy wagging – “Did you bring a ROCK?’

6. Now, as I said, the rock had become rocks. There is criteria that needs to be met, thought we have generalised quite a bit. The rocks do have to be smooth and at least 8cm (3 inches). Small rocks are no good. They can be as large as he can hold. They are no good if they are too big to hold and carry. This is a good place to say QUINN DOES NOT CHEW THE ROCKS. HE DOES NOT PLAY WITH THEM IN A WAY THAT EFFECTS HIS TEETH. He sits them behind his canines and that is that. 

7. Because we now had multiple rocks, there were often rocks around the place. They have a spot in the house, but usually there will be one or two here or there. This is important to understand, because I think one of the most miraculous things I have learned in this process is how important it is that the animal can access their “SECURITY BLANKET/ROCK” WHEN THEY NEED TO. It is vital that the animal can access it when they need too. If you want to create an EMOTIONAL SUPPORT OBJECT for your animal, they must be able to get it quickly. It is probably best if the animal can perceive the object when they are faced with monsters, so they don’t have to think about going and getting it, but it is just there basically saying “I’m here if you need me”. If the emotional support object lives in a specific place and accessible to them, that’s good, and they will learn how to get it, but at first have them close. I didn’t consciously do this, it just happened because I don’t put crap away much.

8. Rocks came with us everywhere. They still do, but he doesn’t need them as much any more. So when we were working on our dog reactivity, rocks came in my bait bag. I would show him I had it, sometimes he wanted it straight away, other times he didn’t and he would ask for it. How did he ask? Just jumping up at me and orientating to my pouch. We also had developed up an understanding that if he felt threatened I would pick him up, so sometimes I got it wrong, he wanted up and I gave him a rock and visa versa. That’s a normal part of a close relationship, misunderstanding. The more you get to know each other, the more you get right.

9. Quinn also created a game with his rocks we call “casuals”. Casuals happens when a dog has something and goes up to another dog (or human, but humans often don’t understand what the dog is saying), and sort of casually shows them they have a grand prize that every dog in the world probably wants. It’s a little “ner – ner” with a touch of “see if you can take it”. But not in a “come on chase me” way. It’s casual. That’s why we call it “casuals”. Cats don’t understand it at all. Casuals are all about feeling great about yourself and what you have and feeling even better cause others want it and they don’t have it. Once I saw what Quinn was doing, I made sure that we played casuals with him as well, and would pretend to try to take the rock off him. This game really improved his confidence with strange people, especially kids. Anyone that plays a game of casuals with him are normally trusted much more quickly than if they don’t.

10. There is probably more, but that’s all I can really think of at the moment. I think for Quinn, there was such a contrast between his regular daily tension and when he went to bed, so it wasn’t hard for the rock to begin to become associated with that relaxed, safe feeling of bed time. I just think that we have to start looking at “counter conditioning” processes from different angles so we can best help the “Quinns” of the world.


It’s not about the rock! Many people are interested to try developing an emotional support object and think they have to start with something novel. You don’t need to! If your dog already has positive associations to an object you can build on that – it’s like getting a head start! I chose something neutral because I was originally doing it as an experiment in classical conditioning. In never dreamed it would be soooo beneficial in so many ways.

I never set out to “make” an emotional support object, just to see what would happen by pairing something at his relaxed time, but of course, I am using what I have learned from this experience in other areas and with another of my dogs. I think it was good that I didn’t have a “goal” because we tend to want to rush and get to the goal… So as you guys think about this with your dogs, DON’T RUSH IT. Take it gradually. Don’t push it. Enjoy the learning in the process that YOUR dog gives you (and then come share it).I presented the rock at bed time most nights for about 2 months before I saw any kind of real association to it. After that it really just was directed by Quinn. But the reason I have this story to share is the number of “trials” (Rock at bed time) and the strength of the association we made BEFORE I ever thought I could use it as a Emotional support object.

5 thoughts on “Science Rocks.

  1. This is very interesting, I wonder what your thoughts are on use of security objects for dogs that are prone to guarding.

    1. Sorry Sarah, new to the wordpress. When ever I’ve worked with guarders, my approach is to ensure security levels in the dog – socially and that things are never going to be removed from them and work on them retrieving objects in a variety of settings. I’ve found the box game as utilised in nose work to be a wonderful foundation for starting this process. Each situation is specific to the individual (s) however. Behaviour is the study of one!

  2. My older dog has built a lot of value in her harness we have issues with her recently (moved house, new puppy). I have had to use the harness to snap her out of her bad moods / behaviour. Would be interested to do the same with some other objects so as not to confuse of devalue the harness. However she had a tendency to Guard
    Hence don’t want to promote this.

    1. Hi Sarah, that’s wonderful that you have been able to use the harness to help her, but I understand your concern with her guarding the object.
      In this situation I would defiantly recommend conditioning a word or phrase to elicit a different emotional response. That prevents any guarding! However, it does take away her option of accessing the emotional support object as she needs it. The thing is that none of us have to decide on any one specific thing – we can (and do) all have conditioned emotional associations to many, many things. So there is no reason you can’t have several. Interested to hear how you progress.

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