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 food – something your dog has never had but 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.
Rules of thumb:
- Don’t treat your dog with the special 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:
What if my dog won’t take the food?
There are a few reasons for this:
- the food is too low-value in your dog’s opinion – try something tastier, less chewy/crunch/dense.
- the trigger is too close – move away!
- the trigger is too intense – move away or block it somehow.
What if my dog takes the food but has a “hard mouth”?
It sounds like your dog is really jazzed up and needs relief. If they’re able to take the food and not take your fingers with it, you need more distance or lower intensity. If this is an ongoing problem, consider using a squeeze tube instead, or showing the food and sprinkling it on the ground instead of feeding hand-to-mouth.
What if we can’t get distance or lessen the intensity?
Sometimes we’re just stuck. It’s really crummy but hopefully it doesn’t last long. Keep your dog and the public safe by ensuring you have a good grip on the leash and you are strong in your stance and won’t be pulled over. Put yourself between the trigger and the dog if you can. Shovel food until you can get out of there. If you can’t or your dog won’t take it, just hang tight, speak calmly and in a reassuring tone, and then you’ll get away and focus on recovery. It’s never easy.
Remember not to punish even if your dog is losing it. Just breathe. Stay focused on keeping them safe. “My dog is not giving me a hard time. My dog is having a hard time.” Repeat this to yourself.
Advocate for your dog – prevent the trigger from accessing your dog. If it’s a person, say “give us space” or “don’t come closer”. If it’s a dog, tell the person “my dog is highly contagious – call your dog NOW!”
You will come out of this with a racing heart but as long as everyone is safe, you’re golden. It’s a setback but you can overcome it.
Now, let’s put it all together!