Counterconditioning does not relate only to dogs; this behavior modification technique is also used in human psychology and with other species. But what exactly is counterconditioning and how can it help your dog? If you are passionate about dog behavior or are looking for a durable, effective and gentle method to turn Cujo into Good Dog Charles, keep reading.
As a dog trainer/behavior consultant, nothing intrigues me more than changing dogs, altering their behavior and changing their emotions from the inside out. 1 tend to see barking lunging/growling as the outward manifestations of an inward turmoil that needs to be addressed. If you have a dog that is reactive towards something, be it another dog, strangers or some other stimuli in his environment, you should not worry about suppressing the outward manifestations, but rather change the underlying emotions. As you work on this, the outward manifestations will fade and extinguish over time.
If, for instance, you are fearful of spiders and seek the aid of a psychologist, he will likely never dream of covering your mouth to make you stop screaming when you see a spider on your
am; rather, he would try to make spiders look less threatening and perhaps help you associate spiders with good things. How would you feel if every time you saw a spider, a $100 dollar bill fell from the sky? Most likely, you would iook forward to encountering more and more spiders! In the same way, counterconditioning can help your dog.
Let’s look deeper into this…
What Does Counterconditioning Mean?
To put it in layman turns, counderconditioning is simply teaching your dog to associate something he hates with good things. So if your dog is manifesting an unwanted behavior, lefs say growling at strangers, you will work on changing this response by associating the stimulus of the strangers with positive things… For example, perhaps every time your dog sees a stranger you give him one of his favorite treats. Sooner or later he will begin to look forward to seeing strangers because he associates them with getting treats!
How Does Counterconditioning Apply to Your Dog?
Now, there is no doubt that dogs learn through associations. Just think about how many things your dog does in response to a certain stimulus because he has learned what comes next. Here are a few examples:
When you get your leash, your dog likely gets excited because he knows he is going on a watk. When you grab the food bowl, your dog may start pacing in anticipation of his meal.
When your dog hears the doorbell, he may start barking because he knows you are having 9uests.
When your dog sees you grab your purse and car keys, he may get anxious knowing you are about to leave. When your dog sees the clicked, he may get happy knowing that a training session is about to begin.
In a similar fashion, your dog may have learned to associate something negative with a particular stimulus. Let’s take a look at some examples:
If your dog is afraid of thunderstoms, he may have learned to associate subtle changes in the static electric field with an upcomin8 storm.
If your dog is worried about guests, he may have learned to associate the doorbell with guests.
If your dog was attacked by another dog, he may have learned to associate their presence with bad things.
If you have roughly grabbed your dog by the collar, your dog may starts associating touchin9 him by the neck area with the unpleasant sensation.
If your dog has slipped on a slippery floor, he may associate slippery surfaces with the mishap.
Many times, you will never know what triggered these negative associations. Some dogs may be extremely sensitive, their fear may be genetically based or the issues may even stem from a health problem, so it can be difficult to determine exactly what culprit has caused them to react in a negative way to something. For instance. not atl dogs that are fearful of men have been abused by men. Many times they just find men scary because of their deeper voices and postures. Not all dogs that are scared of umbrellas have had a bad experience with one, it may simply be they are frightened by their shape and were never exposed to them.
Fear, hiding, barking, and pacing are often self-reinforcing behaviors. Why? Because they are part of survival and linked to the fight or flight response — basically, withdrawing from the trigger (flight) or sending the trigger away (fight). If your dog believes these behaviors have worked to keep himself safe, they will continue. If, for instance, your dog hides under the bed at the first rumble of thunder and nothing bad happens to him, he will repeat the hiding behavior. If your dog lunges at the pizza delivery guy and the guy immediately leaves, your dog will repeat the lunging behavior.
In counterconditioning you will be working on undoing these learned associations and creating new ones, and as your dog unleams these associations and learns the new ones, the outward manifestations will gradually become less intense, and eventually go away. If we dissect the word “counterconditioning,” indeed it means “unleaming” a negative association and substituting it witfi a positive association. I like to compare the process to removing spyware and other harmful data from a computer by installing a more reliable antivirus program that makes your computer function better.
How Do You Counterconditioning Your Dog?
Just as in the example before in which money fell from the sky every time the patient suffering from arachnophobia saw a spider, in the same way Y or dog will get treats (the best equivalent)
for human currency) every time he sees a stranger/hears a rumble of thunder/sees another dog/hears the doorbell etc.
The best way to countercondition a dog is to combine it with desensitization and work with your dog under threshold. Basically, you make the threatening stimulus less intimidating by making it smaller or quieter, or by increasing the distance between the stimulus and the dog. If you are afraid of spiders, you will likely be less scared if you are shown a picture of one rather than the real thing!
When counterconditioning is combined with systematic desensitization, you have a very powerful combination. Yet, using both these behavior modification techniques requires some knowledge, such as recognizing subtle sjgns of.stress, which is why they are best done under the guidance of a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, veterinary behaviorist or a dog trainer well-versed in dog behavior.
So how do you countercondition and desensitize a dog? Let’s make an example. If your dog is fearful of thunder, you will likely play a recording of thunder at a low volume while feeding him chicken or hot dogs (preferably low-sodium). When the recording stops, you stop feeding hot dogs. Then you gradually move on to playing the recording slightly louder each time as you continue feeding the hot dogs. It is important to make sure that your dog makes the association that the sound is what brings the hot dogs. To learn more about this, read my article about Open Bar/Closed Bar training.
Once your dog pairs the sound with something good happening, the magic happens: Instead of getting agitated, your dog will start looking at you for a piece of hot dog!
The same methods can be applied to just about anything your dog fears/dislikes/reacts to. For instance, after moving to a new place my dogs started barking at an old, rusty school bus that passed by our house every day at 3:00 PM. Scolding them for barking in this case would not help, since it would not change the emotions caused by the bus.
Actually, scolding would only exacerbate the fear since they would then not only worry about the bus, but also about being scolded on top of that! So since I knew the time the bus came by, I had a pouch with treats ready each day. Once the bus came, I would feed treats, but once the bus was away, I stopped feeding them. I even put this behavior on cue after a while by saying something like “its the old, rusty school bus, yay!”just before the bus arrived, and they would wag their tails in anticipation of the treats! The bus noise now became an anticipated event as we threw a party when it passed; a win-win situation for all!
Eating, partying and playing are incompatible with fear, so they all work well to change a dog’s negative emotional response replacing it with different feelings and different activities.
And Now Some Counterconditioning Mistakes…
Here are some common mistakes that could be holding back your counderconditioning efforts:
Using low-value treats. You would learn to like spiders more if they gave you $100 bills versus pennies!
Using those treats for other reasons. You need to only use those extra tasty treats exclusively for counlerconditioning sessions.
Working with your dog way over threshold. If your dog is too aroused, his cognitive functions shut down and he may even refuse to take treats.
Poisoning the cue. For instance, if I said “it’s the old, rusty bus* too early in the process when my dogs had not yet formed enough positive associations with it, saying those words could easily become a predictor of bad things and actually increase the arousal, aven before they heard the sound of the bus.
Having a dog focus too much on the food. You need to have your dog acknowledge the trigger rather than continuously eating treats and
paying no attention to anything happening around him!
Going too quickly through the process. Changing behavior takes time. Failing to go back a few steps from where you left off in the previous session.
Failing to go back a few steps if the dog suffers a setback. For example, using the example of the thunder recording, if your dog suffers a setback and freaks out, it’s important to turn things down a notch by decreasing the volume slightly and working up from there.
Failure to make sessions random and varied. Some dogs get used to a certain routine. If you knock the door every few seconds, your dog may learn that treats happen within that interval. So to make things work, at random times of the day knock the door and give the treat. Einstein Says: If your dog is aggressive or obey reactive, please consult with a dog behavior professional. By reading this attitude, you accept this disclaimer.