Let's dig into the theory so that you have a great understanding of this behaviour challenge. Click on the links in the list below or scroll down the page. Watch the video and expand each toggle for more information. 

Dig in!


Food can be used in various ways in training - let's get clear on it! 

Associative tool
Think "Pavlov": once the stimulus is perceived (the dog notices the trigger), then the food appears. This pairs the food with the trigger, making the trigger the predictor of the food! A super-effective way of changing the emotional response so that the dog is happily anticipating the trigger rather than fearing it. 

We know this one all too well. Unlike an associative tool, a reward relies on a contingency; the dog must do something to earn the reward. 

The food acts as a magnet on the dog's nose, helping them to move from A to B without physical force. Very helpful as a temporary measure in training new behaviours. 

Infrequently used but often life-saving - food can be scattered on the ground or bowled away as a distraction to help the dog out of a spicy situation and to buy you some time. 

"I've had it up to HERE!"; your dog's threshold

Your dog's triggers set off alarm bells in their mind and body, telling them that it's necessary for survival to fight or flight. The closer they are to a trigger, the less safe they feel, so we have to be mindful of distance and intensity. 

Think of this in zones:


Your dog is feeling safe and comfortable. They can eat, perform known behaviours, even play or rest! This is where the majority of training needs to happen so that their brain can learn and retain in a stress-free way. 


Your dog is approaching their threshold and we need to slow down and assess what we should do next. Ideally we keep the same distance or a greater distance for learning. If we go much closer we will risk ending up in the red zone. Classically counter condition your dog (change the emotional response) to the trigger while at a safe distance and continue checking their barometer. 


Your dog is very stressed and their survival system is in high gear. All you can do is put safety first and help get your dog out of there and recover. Don't bother trying to train or ask them to do anything - they're not going to respond. They need immediate relief and recovery. 

Your dog's barometer

If only we could ask our dogs how they're feeling or if they feel they can handle this situation...

But we can! Not with our words, but by checking their barometer: 

The 3 Fs: 


  • Will they take food if offered?
    • YES = great! They're feeling okay, but...
      • How hard is their mouth?
        • HARD - they chomp on my fingers to get it = eek - they're stressed - help them get away from the trigger and get some relief. 
        • SOFT - they take it gently = they're feeling okay, unless they're taking it too gingerly; then they may be nervous and apprehensive. 
    • NO = eek - they're stressed - help them get away from the trigger and get some relief. 


  • What are their feet doing? 
    • PLANTED and won't move = eek - they're stressed - help them get away from the trigger and get some relief. 
    • FRANTIC = eek - they're stressed - help them get away from the trigger and get some relief. 


  • Will they perform a cheap (easy) behaviour when asked once? 
    • YES = good! they're feeling okay!
    • NO = eek - they're stressed - help them get away from the trigger and get some relief. 

Change your dog's emotional response toward triggers

Classical counterconditioning is a simple and effective training technique to change a dog’s association with an object, animal, sound, texture, experience, or person from a bad feeling to a good feeling.

This technique relies on carefully timed bits of food to teach a dog that the thing they fear predicts something fabulous.

Think "Pavlov" - the dogs learned to associate food with the ringing of the bell over the door and this, in turn, can change their emotional state AND their behaviour. 

Find a novel or delicious food - something your dog is likely to absolutely LOVE. The meatier, softer, juicier the treat, the more impact the training has. Some ideas are canned chicken, canned sardines (in water, not oil!), cat food pouch, wet dog food in a squeeze tube, low-fat cheese, steak, bbq pork (without spices or sauce).

Cut the treats into bite-sized pieces no larger than an M&M. Put them in an easy-to-get-to container like a bait bag, an old fanny pack, or an apron pocket.

Begin happy-talking and treating your dog as soon as your dog notices the trigger.

Continue treating your dog at a rate of about one treat per second for as long as the trigger is present.

The moment the trigger disappears, you abruptly stop the stream of treats.

Repeat the process every time your dog notices the trigger.


  • Don’t treat your dog with this novel food any other time that the trigger is not present. It must be a sacred food that they love!
  • Make sure the scary trigger doesn’t stay in sight for too long. That might mean you have to happy-talk, treat, AND move your dog away at the same time.
  • If your dog seems fearful, isn’t taking treats, or doesn’t become more relaxed after several repetitions, increase the distance between them and the trigger. These exercises only work if your dog is comfortable and relaxed enough to learn.
  • Treat every time your dog is exposed to the trigger. Behaviour doesn't take a day off!
  • Even if your dog is barking, start the food-stream and happy-talk. The barking is a by-product of an emotion and you are NOT using food as a reward in this context - you are using it to create an association. If your dog is barking so much that they cannot take food, all you can do is walk them away and try again later at a greater distance where they are able to take food.
  • Do NOT make the food contingent on a behaviour; never ask the dog to sit or look at you before feeding in this context. You are simply creating a prediction in your dog's mind: "when the scary thing appears, food rains from the sky...therefore, I now happily anticipate the scary thing!"

Let's observe Salinger, noticing a scary novel stimulus:

Now, classical counterconditioning in action:

Now let's put it all together:

Success message!
Warning message!
Error message!