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What Is Open Bar, Closed Bar in Dog Training?

Dog open bar/closed bar behavior modification can be used for a variety of settings.

Dog open bar/closed bar behavior modification can be used for a variety of settings.

Your Dog in a World of Associations

There is no shadow of doubt that dogs live in a world of associations. If you carefully watch your dog in his daily interactions with you and his environment, you will notice how many stimuli have become a cue of something good or bad coming next.

Positive and Negative Associations in Dogs

Just as dogs have learned to respond to Pavlov's bell and the research assistants' white lab coats by drooling in anticipation of food, you will notice many similar responses in a less-scientific context. The responses observed may be in regards to both negative and positive associations. For instance, you may notice your dog perks his ears up and gets emotionally happy in positive (positive meaning pleasant in this case) anticipation when:

  • watching you get the leash (if he enjoys walks)
  • hearing the doorbell (if he likes guests)
  • seeing you carry his food bowl (if he is hungry)
  • seeing you grab your clicker (if the clicker has become a conditioned reinforcer)

In the same way, you may see your dog withdraw or get emotionally upset in negative anticipation (negative meaning not pleasant in this case) when:

  • seeing his towel (if he hates baths)
  • seeing you grab your purse and car keys (if he suffers from separation anxiety)
  • witnessing a flash of lightning (if he suffers from fear of thunder)
  • seeing you grab the nail clippers (if he hates nail trims)

These positive and negative associations are the result of classical conditioning, a very powerful behavior modification method used by dog trainers and dog behavior professionals. Of course, the emotional responses of dogs to one stimulus or another is subjective.

What Is the Open Bar, Closed Bar Method?

What is open bar and closed bar in dog training? It's an effective method mentioned by Jean Donaldson in her book Dogs Are From Neptune.

The "Bar is Open and Bar is Closed" method is a tool I use heavily when treating moderate to severe cases of stress, anxiety, fear, and certain forms of aggression. I like to call it, "open bracket and closed bracket" to make it clearer to my clients and actually use real "brackets" in these settings.

But what is the open bar and closed bar method? Basically, it is counter-conditioning at its best, but in a very structured way. In other words, the dog is allowed to make pleasant associations only when the perceived frightening/worrisome stimuli is in sight (or is heard, in the case of noise-sensitive dogs). When the worrisome stimuli is out of sight, all good things end. If your most dominant learning style is by looking at examples, the next paragraph will demonstrate an examples of my "open bracket closed bracket" use in a behavioral setting.

An Example of the Open Bar, Closed Bar in Dog Behavior Modification

While all dogs are different, many dogs respond well to treats, especially when they are hungry and the treats are high-value and in bite-size format. In the next example, let's say that a dog is worried, actually terrified, about bikes. To set the dog up for success, I would, therefore, work to make bikes look less threatening. This would entail making them look smaller, less noisy and less intimidating. So I would present them from a distance and keep an eye on the dog's body language for signs of stress.

I would keep high-value treats in a treat bag and work on the following exercises with the aid of a volunteer. Here is my "open bracket, closed bracket" method:

  1. Have the dog sit in the middle of a quiet parking lot where there is not much going on. I do this because I want the bike to be salient and the main source for pleasant associations.
  2. Have the volunteer with the bike hide behind two cars parked at a distance. These two cars, act as the brackets in a figurative way.[ ]
  3. Have the dog facing the direction of the two parked cars and give a signal for the volunteer to get on the bike and slowly ride it in the space between the two cars. When the dog acknowledges the bike, he is fed several small bite-size treats until the bike is out of sight. When the bike is out of sight, all treats end and things get boring. Basically, the dog gets treats only when the bike appears. This is why I like the term open bracket/closed bracket more, I just see it this way and write it on a big board when I explain it to clients: [TREATS]
  4. I repeat this exercise frequently paying attention to the dog's body language and acting accordingly. If the dog at any times, starts appearing stressed we move farther away, if the dog appears very comfortable, we move closer to the stimuli. This exercise is done in many settings so to allow good generalization (i.e., cars are farther apart, dog is closer, different types of bikes are used, etc.).
  5. With time, the dog learns that great things happen when the bike is in sight and all great things end when the bike is out of sight. This makes this method very clear to the dog that the bike is what is brings and ends good things. With time, the dog looks forward to seeing the bite instead of dreading it. The power of positive behavior modification!

The same exercise can be applied to just about anything. A recording of thunder, the presence of somebody at the door, the sight of a dog. Operant conditioning may later be added to the picture by inserting a command such as sit, watch me or down when the stimulus presents. As a general rule, the more time is invested in this training the better. You want to invest a lot so your dog's saving account is full of good associations!

Note: To work well, this method needs to be done with a dog well under threshold. If over threshold, the dog may refuse food and will sensitize rather than de-sensitize!

For best results, the above behavior modification program should be done along with a force-free trainer well versed in dog behavior or a reputable dog behavior specialist (i.e., certified applied animal behaviorist). If your dog is aggressive, make safety your top priority and hire a professional to guide you through the most appropriate behavior modification program.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 16, 2016:

That sounds awesome, good way to put it! Thanks for stopping by my friend!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 16, 2012:

You're welcome, keep in mind that feeding treats as the dog acknowledges the person and walks by may entail feeding several tid-bits in a row until you walk past the person. You can also work in making a smacking noise before giving the treat to get your dog's attention. good luck!

Vanessa on October 16, 2012:

Great! Thank you!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 15, 2012:

Hello! I have seen similar results with dogs, in other words, when they see an isolated person they react more than say walking through a crowd, that looks more like a mass, almost a single entity. If showing the treat works for you, that's good. If you give the treat once past the person, you are basically distracting her from the sight of the person. However, just the sight and smell of a treat is already rewarding so she may still be making a good association between seeing the person and then getting the treat. Ideally, you should be feeding when the person is walking by and not after, "good things end when person is out of sight". About the door knocks you can practice having people come by the door so she smells/hears them and you give a treat. If she barks she is over threshold, so try to keep her leashed with you at a distance from the door at first and then gradually move closer. Happy training!

Vanessa Martinez from Miami, Florida on October 15, 2012:

Thank you! I love your hubs , very informative :D I usually do this when walking my dog. When she sees someone in our path she stops walking or want to turn around. I put a treat in front of her nose and keep walking and she usually follows and we'll walk right by whoever is sharing the sidewalk and once we have past the person i give her the treat. Is this a good idea? Would it work similarly or should I feed her treats non stop until we finish walking past the person. What makes it odd is that when we go to a public park with many people she is more confident and just walks until a dog approaches and she stops(i'm working on that fear as well). However, when she see's an isolated person she is afraid. Also, would this work for door knocks? I did read your hub about that but as soon as she smells someone at the door she barks, so its difficult since i live in an apt and usually its our neighbors. I'm thinking if i'm feeding her repeatedly she can't bark and chew at the same time right lol?

Aaron Rushing from USA- Florida on July 31, 2012:

Excellent incite, I will give it a go.

Thanks for the advice


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 29, 2012:

Mary615, I appreciate to see you stopping by and voting, the method works brilliantly because it is based on the way dogs learn best. Kind regards!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on July 29, 2012:

As always, your Hub has a lot of good information. I'd never heard of this behavior modification method before. I'm willing to try your method.

I voted this Hub UP, etc.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 29, 2012:

Smart fellows! They know all the cues meaning a bath and nail clips are about to happen!

wetnosedogs from Alabama on July 29, 2012:

Baths and nail clipping-my dogs goes the other way. I do end up getting the goals accomplished, and I can give talk to the dogs first and say this is going to happen and they scatter! Funny bunch.