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Part One: A Guide to Counterconditioning; It's Both Magic and Science!

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

Counterconditioning is a wonderful skill to learn, as it can make a tremendous difference to our shy and sensitive dogs. In fact, if it weren’t so firmly rooted in science and learning theory, I would even say it were magic! The great thing about counterconditioning is that nothing is required of the dog, except that he is aware of the trigger. Pairing a stressor with something the dog values highly is a simple enough concept but, in practice, the mechanics and timing are difficult to get right. In this two-part blog, we will explore what it’s all about and how you can avoid the many pitfalls. Let’s help those reactive Rovers and feisty Fidos feel safe by supercharging your counterconditioning!

I’m a firm believer in helping our dogs feel better about the things which worry them by teaching them coping strategies, rather than relying on distraction, or expecting them to offer behaviours in situations which make them uncomfortable. Once a fearful response has already been established, it is crucial that the emotions driving the reactive behaviour are addressed, rather than tackling the behaviour through operant conditioning only (teaching and asking for behaviours). When focus is placed upon addressing the cause of the fear, the unwanted behaviours will resolve rather than being suppressed, and this will be far more effective in improving behaviour and confidence in the long term.

First Steps

When working with a fearful dog, it is important to first build confidence and trust. If a strong relationship exists between you first, it will help him engage and focus and he will be better able to cope when training around triggers. A thorough vet check is also essential to rule out any physical factors, because of the known correlation between pain and behavioural issues. Having any necessary medications in place first will provide the best starting point to working through his worries.

As always, it is really beneficial to get some help from a qualified professional; not only will they guide you and put in place a training plan, but their moral support will also prove invaluable. Life with a reactive dog can certainly be tough, and you can never have too much support!

Before embarking on a behaviour modification plan, the level and type of exercise which your dog receives, both mental and physical, should be assessed. He needs to have opportunities to run and burn off excess energy, play and interact with other dogs (if access to other dogs is appropriate for him). He will need sufficient human input with training, brain games and interaction to teach him how to learn and to give him purpose, rather than just being left to amuse himself in the garden. Through training, he can be taught cues which will help to build a language connection and strengthen the bond you share.

The structure within the household will need to be assessed because routine and consistency are both vital, along with positive teaching and clear, fair boundaries to set him up for success. His diet should also be considered and examined to ensure that it is healthy and balanced, and he needs constant access to clean, fresh water. Diet has an enormous impact on behaviour, so he will need proper nutrition to support a positive behaviour modification plan.

Counterconditioning Combined with Systematic Desensitisation

Any reactive behaviours which become deeply ingrained are very difficult to overcome, although not impossible, through the use of counterconditioning and careful systematic desensitisation. Although these are two separate principles, they are most successful when used together. Basically speaking, counterconditioning is used to change the current negative feelings attached to a trigger to positive feelings. This is a deep-rooted, non-conscious response towards a stimulus, whether that is another dog, person, object, environment, or an event; these feelings are beyond the control of the dog. Systematic desensitisation means carefully controlling the distance between the dog and the trigger, whilst gradually reducing the proximity to build tolerance to it, always staying within the dog’s coping threshold. By combining the two, tolerance can be increased without negatively affecting his emotional and physical wellbeing.

Every dog is an individual, so it is impossible to set a time frame for the process, which should not be rushed. Try not to feel discouraged as time goes on; every little success, however small, deserves to be celebrated! Training should be carefully balanced with respite time to allow the dog to recuperate and decompress.

The Science Bit!

Counterconditioning is a fairly straightforward and highly effective process, once it is fully understood. It builds new neural pathways, creating a positive emotional response to something that has previously held a negative association for the dog, by pairing it with something pleasant, such as high-value treats or a toy, whichever he likes best. Through the use of positive reinforcement, we can activate a release of dopamine, the main neurotransmitter associated with memory. Dopamine is triggered by a positive environmental circumstance and is the key to the brain’s reward system. It boosts learning, motor skills, builds motivation, and increases focus and attention and the capacity for clear thought. The good feelings triggered by it are stored in the memory, therefore it is vital in creating a positive conditioned emotional response.

Flight or Fight

A dog that finds himself in a stressful situation will escalate to survival mode if he feels he is in danger. Past experiences, learning, his state of health, genetics, temperament, and ability to escape will all determine whether he opts for flight or fight, or waits to see what will transpire. Most will choose flight in order to avoid any conflict and ensure their survival, whilst the fight response occurs when a dog feels unable to escape. These encounters cause the dog to become chemically altered, and frequent exposure will lead to physical and mental damage, including chronic stress. This will destroy the immune system and will seriously affect the dog’s ability to learn; it can also create hypervigilance and reduces the dog’s capacity to relate to his environment. It will impact his quality of life and it will take a very long time for him to return to a healthy body chemistry and mental state. Therefore, it is essential that management is in place to minimise exposure as much as possible outside of training sessions, and to prevent him from becoming overwhelmed and flooded.

Before You Begin Training

There are a few points which should be established before training commences. These include: the distance from the trigger at which your dog can remain calm, the length of exposure he can tolerate before showing signs of stress, how he responds to the trigger when both moving and stationary, and if there is a change in intensity to his reaction depending on colour variation, breed, size and shape. The starting distance should be such that he is aware of the trigger but remains well below his threshold, showing no signs of unease. He should consistently remain relaxed in the presence of the trigger before you consider moving any closer, to ensure that his wellbeing is protected and progress isn’t compromised.

In terms of location, a good starting point is a public area where dogs will be kept on the lead and where there will be a steady flow of dog walkers. This could be somewhere in view of a footpath which crosses a recreation ground, for example, where you can position yourself at a safe distance, hopefully with a fence behind to protect from an approach from the rear.

Once your dog has seen the trigger, start dispensing food, and don’t be stingy! Continue to feed until the trigger is no longer present, always maintaining distance so that the dog remains below threshold. If he cannot take the treats, grabs at them, or uses his teeth more than usual, this indicates overarousal and he needs you to increase distance from the trigger.

If your dog is only reactive to certain others, it would be beneficial to carry out counterconditioning every time a dog is encountered, to consolidate the association between the food and other dogs; this will help to build a bank of pleasant experiences and associations. Over time, and if carried out correctly, he will see the trigger and will associate it with food and pleasant feelings, automatically checking in with you in anticipation of the good stuff! At this stage, he should be relaxed and happy, with soft body language. This means that a positive conditioned emotional response is forming and, once it is consistent, the next step is to start work on the desensitisation aspect. With each reduction in distance, a positive conditioned emotional response needs to be established first so that he is only ever exposed at a safe level, reducing the size of his safety bubble gradually, while increasing his ability to cope with things in his immediate environment.

If In Doubt, Don’t Hang About!

Sometimes it may be necessary to abandon a session if it becomes apparent that he might be struggling with the effects of trigger stacking, or if something takes him by surprise whilst actively training. Times like these often need quick thinking and a really well practised “let’s go” cue to make a hasty exit. Other tactics to incorporate into your training are sprinkling treats on the ground for him to snuffle for while a trigger passes by, and using physical barriers in the environment to retreat behind in order to avoid a reaction and a negative encounter.

But Won’t the Treats Reward the Reactive Behaviour?

A common misconception of counterconditioning is that you are rewarding “bad behaviour" by feeding treats, but we are purely working on an emotional level to change how the dog feels. Counterconditioning is particularly effective because it doesn’t involve asking anything of the dog; it can be carried out with no focus on the handler at all, only requiring the dog to be at a neutral level of exposure to facilitate it. The handler doesn’t even need to know why the dog feels negatively about a particular trigger in order to help him.

Counterconditioning can be used in lots of situations for a variety of fears, such as household appliances, vehicles, people and dogs. It is important to control the environment carefully, work at the dog’s pace, and ensure sessions always remain positive to maintain confidence levels.

In part two, we will discuss how to fine-tune your counterconditioning skills and avoid those pitfalls!

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