Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Training Tip - The Bar is Open

The Bar is Open

(Mom's taking over the blog today, for a little training tip):

Often, when we adopt a new pug, or take in a foster pug, they have pre-existing fears, phobias, likes and dislikes. These issues can keep them from being adopted, or make the transition to a new home difficult, sometimes resulting in the pug being returned to rescue. It's not just rescues that can have these fears. Sometimes pugs are just afraid of things.

While every case is different, there is a technique that works in many cases to eliminate fears and anxieties in your pug. It’s called “The Bar is Open”. Well, technically it’s called classical conditioning, but “The Bar is Open” is a lot easier to remember.

The technique involves giving reward (in the case of pugs, it’s usually in the form of FOOD) whenever the scary thing is around. Eventually, your pug will learn to tolerate, then like, then look forward to, the scary thing. The “thing” can be an object, a situation, a noise or another dog. Really, anything that causes your pug anxiety can be helped with classical conditioning.  

I don't think I want to get near that thing

Let’s take a look at an example. My PROS rescue pug, Gracie, has a fear of machines that make noise. That means the vacuum, electric broom, and hair dryer were terrifying to her. Whenever they would turn on, she would run cowering under a chair, shaking like a leaf. So I decided to make the “Bar Open” whenever those machines were running. I cut out most treats while I was working on this, so the only time reward came was when the loud noise happened. Then I filled my pockets and started vacuuming. While I ran the vacuum, I would toss treats around the room. At first, I would toss them far from the vacuum, but as Gracie grew braver, I made her come closer and closer to the noise for her treat. The key is to use LOTS of treats, and dispense them as randomly as you can. Then I moved on to the hair dryer, using the same technique. Whenever the noise happened, the Bar was Open, and treats flowed. When the noise stopped, the Bar Closed Up and no more treats. 

It took about a week for her to overcome her fears. I knew she had conquered them when I opened the closet I keep the vacuum in, and she shot off the couch to join me, ears up, spinning madly – we were going to vacuum! The pug that cowered from the vacuum now couldn't wait to hear the noise. These days, when I vacuum, I have to push her out of the way with the big, scary machine. She stands in front of it, blocking the way, until it gives her a treat.

Hey, when are we going to do some housework?

A note about classical conditioning: some people don’t believe it works, because they theorize that you are “rewarding” the dog for acting fearful. The difference between rewarding for a fearful behavior and conditioning your dog to enjoy something fearful is subtle. But there is a difference. In classical conditioning, you are rewarding your dog when they are doing a wide variety of behaviors. You aren't waiting until they are not fearful, or come a certain distance from you. They just get random treats while something they fear is happening. 

Sometimes we pet and comfort our dogs when they are afraid. That is a case where you may reward that fearful behavior, because you are not rewarding for any other behavior than the fearful behavior. 

In classical conditioning, you are rewarding all sorts of fearful, non-fearful and benign behaviors. You’re creating an association, instead of rewarding a certain behavior.

You can use this technique for all sorts of fears. Take nail trimming. At first, get the trimmers out where your pug can see them, and give them lots of treats while they’re in sight. Soon, your pug will look forward to seeing them. Then pick them up, and reward your pug. Then touch their foot while you hold the trimmers. Then while you trim one paw. Then all the paws. You may never get them to LOVE nail trimming, but they will be less fearful if the Bar is Open when they are getting their nails trimmed. Pugs are notorious nail trimming haters, but all my pugs have tolerated getting it done. It’s not because they are born that way. I make a point to create a positive association, and that’s made nail trimming much less stressful.

Using this technique can relieve stress your pug may have, make their life happier, and make their transition to a new home easier.


  1. Hi Aunt Laurie!

    I use to attack the vacuum with my barking. The Bar is open worked for e, even before we met you all. Mom was so impressed& proud of me when your vacuum emerged & I didn't bark! I'm a walking testimonial, the technique does work!!


  2. What excellent advice! Fortunately, we haven't had to deal with fears like that with any of the pugs through our house. But we will definitely keep this in mind if the next foster pug has any phobias.

    Got any tips for calming down a pug who goes berserk for food or treats?

  3. Southern Fried Pugs: as this video shows, mom obviously hasn't figure out how to keep a pug from going berserk for food.


  4. I am going to have to try this on Donald. The hairdryer is not his friend right now. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Great Advice! Greta is not afraid of much anything but hates to get her nails done. My biggest challenge right now is riding in the car. She goes beserk ON THE WAY TO where we are going. She can't wait to get in the crate,then cries and digs all the way like she is too excited to get where we are going. But on the way home she is totally fine. Right now I am trying a music CD "calming your dog in the car". She did not cry as much when we went to class Monday. I'm open to any advice any one would have!

    Mom & Greta
    Bailey & Hazel too!

    PS She gets treats for getting in the crate and I have put chew bones in with her but she ignores them.