The lack of external cues has been throwing our household for a loop. While I’m generally rather good at creating routine, none of us realized just how much the dog’s feeding routine and cues were based on external triggers. Like my spouse coming home, my having to get ready to teach a class, or the dogs and I coming home from an activity. Without these external cues and routines, the dogs were starting the “It’s Dinner Time!!” nudges and stirring hours in advance.
And this is where good old Professor Pavlov comes to save the day. Pavlov experimented with what is now known as classical conditioning: creating a pairing of previously unconditioned stimuli. In Pavlov’s case he conditioned the sound of a bell with food. Over repeated pairings, the sound of the bell alone would trigger physiological responses in the dogs previously associated with food, like salivation.
I don’t much care if or how much my dogs salivate in anticipation of food, but I do want to create a pairing between a stimuli and their dinner time. This will not only give me more control of when meal time will occur, but by giving my dogs a consistent external “dinner time” cue I lessen their stress and increase their comfort with knowing when certain events (like meal time) will occur.
Using the magic of technology and the seemingly endless number of alarm sound signal options on my iPhone, I selected a sound that I’d never before used for anything. It is a unique sound, not used for my phone ringing or any other alarms or alerts. The one I chose happened to be labeled “Bell Tower” in my phone settings and has a nice bing bong cadence tone. I then set the alarm to go off at 5pm daily.
Day 1: my dogs started getting antsy for meal time at 3:20pm. Pacing around, nudging at me, sighing. I ignored the behaviors, and continued with my work day and life. At 5pm the Bell Tower alarm sounded, I immediately got up while it was still playing, got the dog’s attention and very clearly let them know I would now get their dinner ready. Once I was preparing their meal, I turned off the alarm sound. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t accidentally paring my getting up from my desk chair, or my calling the dogs over with getting their dinner ready, or any other potential unintended stimuli, hence my leaving the alarm on and playing until I was actively preparing their food.
Day 2: around 3:30 again, the dogs were antsy for dinner. I did the same routine as on Day 1.
Day 3: Now the dogs weren’t antsy for dinner until 4:30. Again same routine of waiting for the alarm to sound, getting the dog’s attention and clearly letting them know as the alarm was sounding I was now getting their dinner ready.
Day 4: The dogs are relaxed and quiet all afternoon. 5pm the alarm sounds, and immediately the dogs are up. I get their food ready and they eat.
Classical conditioning for the win. My dog’s now have a clear signal of when it’s time to eat. The signal is unique. And the signal is one I can control (I can change the time when the alarm sounds if I need at a later date). As long as I consistently continue to pair the alarm with dinner time, and actively avoid pairing other cues with meal time, my dogs should continue to be able to trust that meal time will happen when the Bell Tower alarm sounds, and not seek other dinner time cues.