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Part Two: Common Mistakes When Counterconditioning; Let’s Supercharge Your Skills!

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

In part one of this blog, we explored the art of counterconditioning and the science behind this important, yet widely misunderstood element of learning theory. We discovered that pairing a trigger with something positive to change the emotional response is a simple enough concept, but, in practice, it is difficult to execute correctly, and there are many ways that errors can creep in.

If you missed my guide to counterconditioning in part one, you can read it here:

In part two, we will explore how we can avoid those pitfalls and supercharge your counterconditioning skills for success!

Allow a Period of Respite Before You Begin Training

Before you start working on triggers, it is important to allow a period of respite so that your dog is in the right frame of mind to learn. The time off will help him relax, allowing his primary stress hormone, cortisol, to reduce to a baseline level. This may require a break of as little as a few days, or it may take several weeks, depending on the stress levels of the individual dog and the management you have in place to minimise stressors inside and outside of the home. A thorough vet check should also be carried out to rule out any pain, anxiety, or other underlying health conditions. If medications are prescribed, allow sufficient time for these to take effect, giving your dog the best possible chance of maintaining an even keel, both emotionally and chemically.

You can read about how to help your dog feel safe here:

If your dog has multiple triggers, make a list of them and prioritise the order of importance, working through them one at a time so as not to overwhelm your dog. When not actively training, protect him by minimising exposure to any stressors as much as you can.

Beware of Trigger Stacking

Please don’t feel that you have to walk and train every day! A day or two off a week might well be needed, so observe your dog carefully and find the right balance for his needs. Also, bear in mind that fun and exciting activities increase arousal in the same way that stress does, so include calming activities such as sniffing, licking and chewing, along with “sniffy walks”, enrichment toys and plenty of rest to decompress. A single stressful incident can take seventy-two hours for the cortisol to dissipate fully, so if he experiences too many stressors close together and isn’t given time to recuperate, he will be more at risk of going over threshold.

Timing Is Everything!

When counterconditioning, it is really important that we wait until our dog is aware of the trigger before feeding. Wait a couple of seconds, then start to feed, making sure that you don’t block his line of sight. The food must come after to ensure that the trigger predicts the treats, and not the other way around. If the food appears before the trigger, it can become “poisoned” by creating a negative association, because the treats will become a predictor of the scary thing. If this happens, stop using that particular food, find a suitable replacement, and start again.

There is no need to point out the trigger to him either; he should be allowed to notice it and look at it in his own time. There is a chance that pointing out triggers could lead to hypervigilant behaviour and increase his fear.

The 1:1 Contingency Needs to Be Maintained

When we countercondition, the trigger must predict the good stuff appearing. If we are using hotdogs, for example, your dog must not get to eat hotdogs in any situation other than when he sees the trigger. To change his emotional response, the trigger must be the only thing that makes the hotdogs appear. In the same way, we need to vary where and when we train, how long we train for, what happens in the lead up to the trigger appearing, how it appears, and so on, so that there are no other predictors that hotdogs are coming. We also need to be prepared to feed hotdogs whenever a trigger is present, so we can’t afford to be caught unawares. The trigger has to predict hotdogs every single time in order to meet the 1:1 contingency.

Don’t Rush!

It is crucial that you work at your dog’s pace. There are no quick fixes, and there is nothing to be gained from rushing this process. Every dog is an individual, so it is impossible to say how long it will take to see a change in his feelings. However, we know that the slower you go, the less likely you are to suffer setbacks.

A consistent positive conditioned emotional response needs to be achieved every time there is a slight decrease in distance for this process to be successful. Your dog should remain relaxed and reliably look to you for treats when he sees the trigger before you consider going any closer; this takes time and patience. However, please, please, please don’t feel discouraged. Every little success, however small, deserves to be celebrated! Perhaps keep a diary and make a note every time something goes well, so that you can track how far you have come. It can also be useful to note down anything that doesn’t go so well too, so that you can see where improvement is needed and spot any patterns which might develop. If there are any setbacks at all, increase distance to where he is comfortable and work through the process again.

Work At a Neutral Level of Exposure

When a dog goes beyond his coping threshold, he will learn nothing because he won’t be able to think clearly; therefore, forging ahead with the session will be counterproductive. To prevent this, training sessions should be well planned, with much consideration given to the location, how much space is available, the frequency that the trigger will present, as well as minimising the potential for the session being interrupted by off lead dogs running up or other triggers appearing, such as bikes or children. Any such intrusions will increase the likelihood of a reaction, jeopardising your training progress.

If your dog is showing signs of stress at a distance where he usually copes well, consider the possibility of trigger stacking, taking into account any recent stressors. Increase distance and give him time to rest and decompress. Look at the management you have in place at home to minimise stress, and plan your chosen times and places to train carefully. Don’t go somewhere that is too busy and will overwhelm your dog. Look for environmental masking such as parked cars, hedges, gateways etc that you can hide behind if needed, and always be on the lookout for escape routes. Try to stay out in the open so you can easily see what’s coming, and stay away from off-lead areas. If in doubt, visiting somewhere a few times without your dog is a good way to scout out a potential training spot.

Use The Right Reinforcement

Dealing with reactivity is an immense challenge, so it is imperative that the reinforcement matches the task at hand. Whether you use food or a toy, it has to be something that the dog loves, and not something that has been recommended, or that you think should be of high value.

You’d be surprised by what some dogs would select first, given the choice. I’ve had some funny looks when I’ve produced Dentastix as a Mantrailing reward, but, for my boy Jack, they are the best thing ever! He sniffs along the full length of them, very much as you might with a fine cigar, and his eyes almost pop out of his head with excitement. Strange but true! We have tried steak, sardines, sausage pate, but Dentastix top all of those. Our dogs will often value things differently from how we might expect, and their preferences may change from time to time, so we need to use what they currently value as reinforcement. If their mouth waters for watermelon, or they are crazy for carrots, use them! Just remember the all important 1:1 contingency that counterconditioning requires.

Make Sure That You Use Classical Conditioning and Not Operant Conditioning.

We need to be clear that we are using classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning, to address the emotions, the root cause of the behaviour. Again, the 1:1 contingency comes into play here; reinforcement should not be contingent on our dog performing a sit, a look, or anything else. The trigger predicts the food, and we feed. If we do not maintain this, we muddy the waters, diluting and slowing down the entire process. We don’t need to involve any elements of operant conditioning, which means teaching and asking for behaviours. This can be added in later, once we have addressed how the dog is feeling and provided him with coping skills. If we expect too much and ask for too much too soon, i.e., we wait for a behaviour such as a sit, or looking at or away from the trigger, it may well be too much, which only results in us prolonging the worried feelings, and we may miss our chance to pair the trigger with food. The most likely outcome in this scenario is that we sensitise him further, causing escalation of the reactive behaviours. All that is necessary is the dog sees the trigger- he does not need to do anything at all.

A tremendous advantage of excluding any operant elements from your counterconditioning is that you will see a clear indication when your dog’s feelings are changing. As he makes the association between the food and the trigger, he will look at you in anticipation of the treats. This is a big moment, and an important marker. If, for example, the food delivery is contingent on looking at and away from the trigger, rather than allowing it to happen organically, it will be virtually impossible to know how he feels and when to reduce distance.

As you can see, there are quite a few pitfalls when it comes to effectively performing counterconditioning, but I hope that this two-part blog has given you a greater understanding, insight and appreciation of the power of counterconditioning. It is certainly wonderful to watch our dogs gain confidence and learn new coping skills, while helping them enjoy life to the max!

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