Simple counter conditioning

Counter conditioning is a method that can be used to change unwanted behavior in animals. As the name implies, it means conditioning (or training) the animal to do something contrary, or counter, to the unwanted behavior it normally does in a particular situation. For instance, the dog cannot jump and sit simultaneously. So, if your dog jumps at people when greeting them, you can use counter conditioning to teach him to sit to greet people instead of jumping at them.

You can also use counter conditioning to change an animals feelings about something. If your dog is afraid of other dogs, using counter conditioning, you can teach him that strange dogs always mean that something nice will happen, and hence, he will start to think that strange dogs are nice instead of scary.

Counter conditioning is simple, but that does not mean it is easy, or even a quick fix for your problems. In fact it requires careful planning. First you need to think about your pets behavior and figure out the exact thing that your pets reacts to in a negative way. For instance you might know that your dog is afraid of strange dogs, but in order to start changing his fearful behavior you need to first figure out all the elements that can trigger a fearful reaction from your dog. Those elements might be distance, the sex of the other dog, whether the other dog is on the leash or off the leash, the size of the other dog or even its color. When you have created a clear picture for yourself about what actually makes your dog behave fearfully (or aggressively for that matter) think about putting them in order from the least threatening to the most threatening. For instance, your dog might be perfectly okay with small dogs that are 20 yards away, but it they get closer than 15 yards he starts barking. If your dog is more afraid of large dogs than small dogs, it might be that large dogs trigger reaction already at 50 yards distance.

The idea of counter conditioning is to start the training at the easiest situation, ie. a small dog 25 yards away and gradually, when your dogs behavior gets better, move to the more difficult situations such as small dog at 15 yards away, large dog at 40 yard away, large dog 35 yards away and so on. If your dog is afraid, and you only want to change his feelings about other dogs, the training steps are quite straightforward, and you only need dogs and owners to help you and plenty of your dogs favorite treats.

First, bring the feared thing into sight, and start treating your dog in a steady stream of small pieces of his favorite treats. Second, move the feared thing out of sight and stop the treats as soon as your dog cannot see the feared thing anymore. Rinse and repeat at least 10 times each session. If your dog won’t eat or seems to get agitated you are most likely too close to the feared thing and you should start training from further away.

Once your dog seems comfortable at the distance you decided to start at you can move a little bit closer. Don’t try to get too close too soon! Even one step closer can be a lot for some dogs. Start a new session always at an easier level and do few repetitions at that level before moving on. Never start at the more difficult level than what you ended your last session at.

If at all possible try to avoid exposure to the scary thing between your treatment sessions. The possibility to perform the unwanted behavior will only strengthen it and risks undoing all the good work you have done during your training sessions 😀