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Understanding Dog Counterconditioning

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Read on to learn how to use counterconditioning on your dog.

Read on to learn how to use counterconditioning on your dog.

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."

The power of counterconditioning: how reactive rovers magically mellow down.

The power of counterconditioning: how reactive rovers magically mellow down.

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 start 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 this process to removing spyware and other harmful data from a computer by installing a more reliable antivirus program that makes your computer function better.

How Do You Countercondition Your Dog?

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, or 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 about 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 of 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 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 setback.
  • Failure from making random and varied sessions. Some dogs get used to a certain routine. If you knock on the door every few seconds, your dog may learn that treats happen within that interval. So to make things work, knock on the door and give the treat at random times of the day.

Dr Sophia Yin Demonstrates the Power of Counterconditioning

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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:

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli


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:

Hi Oakley,

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: 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!