Understanding Dog Counterconditioning
Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
What Is Dog Counterconditioning?
Counterconditioning does not relate only to dogs. In fact, 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 reactive 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. I 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 changing 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 arm. 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 look 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?
While I am not too fond of Wikipedia, it does give a nice, down-to-earth explanation: "Counterconditioning is the conditioning of an unwanted behavior or response to a stimulus into a wanted behavior or response by the association of positive actions with the stimulus." So in layman turns, if your dog is manifesting an unwanted behavior, say growling at strangers, you will work by changing this response by associating the stimulus with positive actions."
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.
Examples of Dogs Responding to Stimuli
- When you get your leash, your dog likely gets excited because he knows he is going on a walk.
- When you grab the food bowl, your dog may start pacing in anticipation of his meal.
- When your dog hears the doorbell, your dog may start barking because he knows you are having guests.
- 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 clicker, your dog may get happy knowing that his training session is about to happen.
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.
Examples of Dogs Responding to Negative Stimuli
- If for instance, your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, he may have learned to associate subtle changes in the static electric field with an upcoming 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 touching 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.
Note: Many times, you may 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 you may never know exactly what culprit may have caused them to react in a negative way to something. For instance, not all dogs that are fearful of men have been abused by men. Many times they just find men fearful 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, the flight or fight response, basically withdrawing from the trigger or sending the trigger away. 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 undoing these learned associations and creating new ones, and as your dog unlearns these associations and learns the new ones, the outward manifestations will gradually become less intense, fade and eventually go away. If we dissect the word "counterconditioning, indeed it means "unlearning" a negative response and substituting it with an incompatible behavior. 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.
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 your 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 by combining it with dog desensitization. and working with your dog under threshold. Basically, you make the threatening stimuli less intimidating, by making it smaller, less loud or increasing the distance. 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 signs of stress, which is why they are best done under the guidance of a certified applied animal behavior specialist, veterinary behaviorist or 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 hot dogs. When the recording stops, you stop feeding hot dogs. Then you gradually move on to playing the recording gradually louder 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 dog. To learn more about this, read my article on "dog open bar/closed bar dog behavior modification".
Once your dog pairs the sound with something good happening, something great happens: instead of getting agitated, your dog will start looking at you for the hot dog!
The same methods can be applied to just about anything your dog fears/dislikes/reacts to. My dogs for instance, after moving to a new place 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 their emotions of the bus.
Actually, scolding would only exacerbate the fear since they would then not only worry about the bus but also 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, once the bus was away, I stopped feeding them. I even put this behavior on cue after a while by saying "it's the old, rusty bus" and they would wag their tails in anticipation for 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 toward and replace it with another activity.
Common Counterconditioning Mistakes
- 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 only and exclusively for these sessions.
- Working with your dog way over threshold. If your dog is too aroused, his cognitive functions shut down and may even not want to take treats.
- Poisoning the cue. For instance, if I said " it's the old, rusty bus" when my dogs had not formed enough positive associations, saying those words could easily become a predictor of bad things and actually increase the arousal, even before they heard 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 from going back a few steps from where you left off in the previous session.
- Failing from going back a few steps if the dog is having a set back.
- Failure from making random and varied sessions. 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, knock the door and give the treat at random times of the day.
Disclaimer: If your dog is aggressive or overly reactive, please consult with a dog behavior professional. By reading this article, you accept this disclaimer.
© Adrienne Farricelli All rights reserved, do not copy.
Dr Sophia Yin Demonstrates the Power of Counterconditioning
Questions & Answers
Question: I have a large dog that bites and jumps as soon as we take the leash off of him. He is very easily excitable and very sensitive to changes in the environment. He has gotten worse lately with his arousal biting, sometimes biting and jumping even on a leash. Do you have any suggestions?
Answer: You will need to work on reducing those arousal levels and train a replacement behavior that is far more reinforcing. Practice, snipping off the leash and tossing a handful of high-value treats on the ground so to divert his attention or give him a stuffed Kong to work on for some time if after eating the treats he goes back to jumping and biting. Make this a habit so that he no longer rehearses the troublesome behavior. This, of course, is only one facet of tackling this problem, as you will need to work on lowering those arousal levels in a more general form so to tackle the cause. Here is a read that you may find helpful: https://hubpages.com/dogs/Understanding-Dog-Arousa...
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 13, 2020:
Oakley, he sounds like he is stressed, but a vet check would be important to rule out other possible causes for licking (allergies, GI issues, pain). Once the vet rules out medical problems, you can ask him whether meds may help him and try behavior modification by trying to engage him in alternate activities, eg. walk, interactive toys (stuffed kong, Kong Wobbler, give him a licky mat, spread with some canned food etc. Try to tire him out too, so when he is done going out for a walk, playing, engaging in brain games etc he will think about getting rest more than licking. If he does try to lick, offer him something to chew on or lick.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 19, 2020:
I would start with a vet visit just to rule out many skin conditions that can trigger biting and scratching. I know it sounds stress related, but sometimes opportunistic skin conditions pop up when dogs are stressed and their immune system lovers. If you have a clean bill of health, I think it would be important to keep his mind busy at home. Provide brain games, mental stimulation, toys that encourage foraging (Kong Wobbler, Kong, Buster Cubes). Praise for engaging in these activities. If you have a neighbor with a dog he gets along with, schedule play sessions, anything that distracts him from the biting and chewing. Many dogs start biting and scratching when they start to relax, try to offer a chew toy or place peanut butter in side a Kong. Try to reduce the episodes of licking as much as possible by providing alternate activities. Hopefully he' engage more in these and you should see a reduction in the biting/scratching. Is he licking a particular spot more than others? Bitter Yuk sprayed on the area can sometimes help. But you also need to provide alternate things to focus on. If this behavior is very ingrained, it may reach obsessive-compulsive levels which require intervention by veterinary behaviorist.
Oakley on April 19, 2020:
Hi, my dog has couple issues bit the main one is the arousal, last year we went to the vet which said neutura him. So we did and he calmed so much, after our other dog died he has been scratching and biting himself till he bleeds. We have worked out its high arousal if i take him ouy for a walk he will come back and chew himself or lick etc. Its so bad we have to pyll himself off area he is chewing. At night he a has a cone, we dont get alot of sleep at least 12 times a night have to get up and stop him.
We are at wits end we cant leave him alone at all, not even go to the toilet. Help
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 31, 2019:
Desensitization works best when accompanied by counterconditioning. That means we want to create a strong association between touch and treats (make sure they are high value) until we notice a strong conditioned emotional response. Now, things may get tricky at times depending on individual factors. If your dog is scared of sounds or other things too, it means that she likely has stress hormones circulating for most of the day causing her to be jumpy. You likely need a multi-faceted approach to help her. If she is too stressed, and over threshold, there are risks to sensitize her rather than desensitize her. To use counterconditioning for noise fear, read this:/dogs/Dog-Noise-Sensitivity-... If she has allergies that can also make life more miserable and we all know how we feel mentally when we're not in top shape. Apoquel can too cause side effects so if this all started when taking the drug, report it to the vet.
Maria on August 30, 2019:
Hello, I have a 2 year old female Great Dane and when you touch her without her watching where you touch her she startles. Have tried the desensitized method, thunder shirt etc... no change. This behavior and being terrified of sounds loud or small boxes flags etc... came on suddenly with no catalyst that I know or remember. She has allergies that she is on apoquel and prescription food. Can this be the underlying issue or is there another method that I can try to help her feel more comfortable in her own skin? Thank you so much for any help. Desperate to help my baby. Maria
lora klimkiewicz on August 15, 2017:
Well, Ive been working with this dog for a few weeks now giving small treats and moving from showing him a clippers or a sander to tapping his nails with them, until he is fine with the sander being on and tapping the nails, and then when I go to touch the nail he jumps 6 feet. Hes very afraid. Seems to love treat time, but savvy on the purpose.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 20, 2012:
Happy training, and thanks for stopping by!
Helen Murphy Howell from Fife, Scotland on October 20, 2012:
What an excellent article this is. There are a couple of things I would like to try with my 7 month old pup Kassy. She is very food orientated as well, so most training is quite easy. However, I have found that my cues are not always spot on and your wonderful hub has made me re-think my strategy with her.
Many thanks for this superb article. Voted up!!!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 19, 2012:
Lol, that's funny! The power of counter-conditioning!
Larry Fields from Northern California on October 18, 2012:
Although this has nothing to do with fear, I have an example of associating a less-pleasant thing with a more-pleasant thing. Even as an adult, I don't mind the smell of cow manure. Why not?
When I was a child, there was a dairy a few miles away. My mother would drive there in order to purchase really fresh milk. When I went along for the ride, she would also buy me a chocolate-covered ice cream bar. To this day, I associate the smell of cow manure with chocolate-covered ice cream bars!
Open Bar/Closed Bar (Desensitization and Counterconditioning)
Open Bar/Closed Bar is a great training game to help dogs become more comfortable with things they are reactive, aggressive, or afraid of. It is often used for dogs with handling issues (e.g., uncomfortable with having their collar grabbed), fears of certain types of people (men, people with facial hair, tall people), or reactivity toward objects, such as cars.
Changing your dog’s emotional association to a trigger is a very effective way to influence your dog’s behavior. It takes time, repetition, and carefully following certain rules, explained below.
What is DS/CC?
Desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) is a time-tested method for improving behavior in dogs that have a strong emotional reaction to a trigger. Often this manifests as reactivity (barking, lunging, staring), aggression (growling, snapping, biting), or fearfulness (hiding, trembling, running away).
Counterconditioning means changing the dog’s emotional association with the trigger from negative to positive. To countercondition, we must pair the trigger (at a very low intensity –
see below) many, many times with something the dog loves. This is usually best accomplished by using lots of tiny pieces of very high-value food (real cooked meat or cheese). The dog comes to feel happy about the trigger because it predicts delicious food.
Desensitization means reducing the dog’s response to the trigger by starting the trigger at such a low level that the dog does not react to it. The dog eventually thinks the trigger is no big deal. For visual triggers, we usually start with it so far away the dog can barely see it. With sound triggers, we start with the sound at such a low volume that the dog can barely hear it.
We must combine DS and CC: If the dog is reacting (barking, hiding, lunging), even if we are feeding high-value food (counterconditioning), the dog is over their threshold of tolerance. We are not using desensitization. In fact, the dog may actually be further sensitized to the trigger.
A Human Example…
Imagine you have a phobia of snakes. If I wanted to help you overcome your fears, I would not start by trapping you in a room full of pythons (like Indiana Jones). This would not be DS/CC it would be “flooding.”
Instead, I would start with showing you a picture of a funny little cartoon snake, and then give you $100. I would repeat that until every time you saw that picture of the cartoon snake, you felt happy.
Then I would show you a picture of a real snake and pay you $100 each time. Eventually, we would start with one small real snake at a distance. And you would be free to stop the training at any point if it felt too uncomfortable for you.
Open Bar/Closed Bar
Trainers often refer to this method as “open bar” and “closed bar.” When the dog sees (or hears or feels) the trigger, the bar is open: you feed MANY TREATS, one after the other — treat after treat after treat. As long as the trigger is present, the bar is open, and it’s fantastic! The dog should feel showered with fabulous goodies. It should be dramatic, repetitive, and wonderful.
Equally important is when the trigger goes away. As soon as the dog does not see or perceive the trigger, the bar is closed. Then life is boring. No treats, no praise, no petting, just boring. Over time, the dog notices the dramatic difference between these two situations and starts hoping for the trigger to appear so that the bar will open again!
Once your dog looks delighted by the presence of the trigger, you can make it a tiny bit more intense (bring it closer, make it louder, etc.). But you still must keep the dog below the threshold of reactivity or fear. GO SLOW. It is always better to go slower than to push. Only make the trigger more intense when your dog looks truly happy (wagging tail, eager, happy, relaxed, loose body) to see the trigger. If they are just tolerating it, that’s not good enough.
Neuroscientists refer to our brains as having a “negativity bias.” Bad experiences loom much larger than equally good experiences. This is also true for dogs.
Think about how you feel if a policeman pulls you over and gives you a ticket for $200. You may feel angry, scared, or ashamed, and your body responds with a racing heart, sweaty palms, red cheeks, etc. For months after, every time you drive past that spot, you feel tense, possibly angry or worried, your stomach tightens, your jaw clenches. That is a negative emotional association.
Now imagine that every time you drive past that spot, the same police officer pulls you over, smiles, and gives you $100. Logically, he should only have to do that twice to change your feelings about him, right? But that is not how our brains work. Realistically, it would take several dozen repetitions (thousands of dollars) before your heart would stop racing every time you saw the police officer.
To do both types of training – planned lessons and “real-life training” – it helps to know how dogs learn. It helps to understand that dogs have two types of learning: emotional learning and learning by consequence. Both play a role how behavior problems develop and how to modify them with training. Both types of learning are taking place all the time and at the same time. Please see our handout on how dogs learn for more information.
Tips for Success
Although the concepts are simple, it can be tricky to do DS/CC correctly:
- The trigger has to occur first. The trigger must PREDICT good stuff. If your dog is fearful of people, she must first see the person, and then get one treat after another. It is a common mistake to feed before the trigger appears. This is usually not effective and can even make the dog hate or fear treats
- There must be a noticeable “closed bar” between each “open bar.” If the dog thinks he’s just getting treats and doesn’t notice that the treats only happen when the trigger appears, you are not making the crucial association between trigger and treats
- Closed bar must mean truly closed bar. Keep it boring – don’t chatter, don’t pet, don’t praise, don’t play, don’t feed. Just stand there watching the paint dry.
- Increase intensity of the trigger in the smallest increment possible. If the trigger is 20 feet away, and your dog is delighted when it appears, move it 19 feet away. Don’t skip to 10 feet! Likewise, if your dog looks totally happy, relaxed, and playful with fireworks sounds at volume level 1, now train with it at level 2.
- Do not increase the trigger’s intensity until your dog looks delighted to see the trigger. It’s not enough for your dog just to not be reacting. Your dog must look actively HAPPY every time she sees the trigger. This means loads of repetition.
- If your dog is making progress, but training feels horribly repetitive, boring, and slow – you’re probably doing it right!
Tail wagging seems like an obvious body language signal. If a dog’s tail is wagging, the dog is happy, right? Wrong. People misinterpret this signal all the time. All a wagging tail means is that the dog is emotionally aroused. It could be excitement, but it could be frustration or worse. To interpret the dog’s emotions and intentions, look at the speed and direction of the wag as well as the position of the tail.
Basically, the faster the wag, the more aroused the dog. Think about those long, slow, side-to-side tail sweeps your dog makes when greeting you — the type that wag the dog’s whole body. That’s a relaxed dog. A faster twitch-like wag indicates a higher level of arousal and possibly in a negative way. Think of a guard dog on alert.
The direction of the wag may hold clues as well. A recent study on tail-wagging showed that dogs tend to wag more to the right when they feel positive about something, like interacting with their owner. Tails wagged more to the left when dogs faced something negative. Then, there’s the helicopter tail wag where the dog’s tail spins in a circle. Without question, that’s a happy wag. You’ll usually see it when a dog is greeting a beloved person.
Finally, the position of the dog’s tail relative to the ground holds important clues about their emotional state. Essentially, the higher the tail, the more assertive the dog. Dogs with their tails pointing down to the ground or even tucked between their legs are feeling fear and stress. Dogs with their tails held up like a flag are feeling confident, perhaps even aggressive. Relaxed dogs hold their tails in a neutral position, but neutral depends on the breed. Some breeds, like Chow Chows, have tails that naturally curl over their backs whereas breeds like the Italian Greyhound have a very low neutral tail position. If you get to know your dog’s neutral tail position, you will more quickly recognize when their emotions have shifted.
How to Understand Dog Pack Dynamics
Last Updated: February 2, 2021 References
This article was co-authored by Indigo Will. Indigo Will is a Canine Expert, Trainer, and Founder and Owner of K9-INDIGO® Holistic Dog Training LLC™, a dog training service in Los Angeles, California. Indigo specializes in understanding canine temperament and dispositions to allow canines to reach their full potential. He has studied various methods of training and philosophies to develop a unique, innovative, and result-driven method for canine behavior training.
There are 18 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.
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When trying to understanding dog pack dynamics, it's important to learn how dogs and humans have coexisted over thousands of years. As a result, dogs don't live in packs based on survival and hunting like other animals. Instead, their social dynamics are more complex and more like those of humans. Get to know the specifics about dog interactions in order to offer the best training, deal with undesirable behaviors, and manage your multi-dog household.