Helping Reactive Dogs: Counterconditioning
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

Alright, with our management plan in place we are now ready to get to the “meat and potatoes” of helping our reactive dogs - counterconditioning and desensitization. These two concepts go together like peas and carrots, but we’re going to break them each down, and separate them into their own articles, since it’s a bit much. 


Counterconditioning

Counterconditioning (which we’ll call CC for the sake of brevity) is the process by which we change the emotional reaction of an animal to a particular trigger by pairing the presence of that trigger with really desirable things. In our dog’s cases this means FOOD. Really, really good food. 


Most of us learned a little bit about Pavlov’s dogs when we were in school. In his famous experiment, Pavlov would ring a bell before presenting dogs with food. With time and repetition, the sound of the bell ringing would elicit the same response as the food itself - salivation. That’s essentially what we’re doing here. We’re less interested in the salivation aspect, and more interested in the association of good things. By creating training set ups in which our dogs are exposed to a trigger from a distance/intensity that still allows them to remain under threshold (link), and then pairing those exposures with our dogs’ favorite treats, we teach them that the “scary thing” is actually a predictor of their favorite snack. With time, this changes their emotional response from, “OH MY GOD TERRIFYING TWO WHEELED MONSTROSITY” to, “Hey, it’s a bike, where’s my cheese?” 


In order to make sure that the trigger becomes a predictor of good things, the trigger MUST appear FIRST. And the food must also stop when the trigger is no longer perceptible. So this may look something like:


Appearance of other dog at 20 yards > Cheese > Dog turns corner out of sight > Cheese ends


It does not look like:


Cheese > Appearance of other dog > More cheese > Dog disappears > Still cheese


While that may work to help reduce the likelihood of your dog reacting because he’s busy eating cheese the entire time, it is not helping him to learn that the dog’s presence is the reason for the cheese. 


That being said, if the dog (or whatever the trigger may be) is unexpected (ie not part of a training set up, but a result of fluke in management) and you just need to get the heck out of dodge, don’t worry too much about the order of operations. It’s okay to feed as much cheese as you need to make a getaway. 


For triggers that are already predictors, like say the doorbell, which is a predictor of a person entering the house, it can help to change up the already learned association, too. So that may mean doing Doorbell > Cheese many, many times without there ever being a person entering the home. By separating the doorbell sound from the person entering the home, we can work on those things as two separate triggers and get really strong with them before we try and combine them. (This goes back to management - it may mean having guests text you ahead of time upon arriving and going outside to greet them with your dog, or having the dog in a back bedroom with a sound machine as the guest arrives, or something along those lines). 


When your CC protocol is working, you’ll see something called a Conditioned Emotional Response. This is the “hey where’s my cheese” moment. It usually looks like a dog perceiving a trigger and then turning their head to you in anticipation of their treat. 


Keep in mind that CC is NOT contingent on your dog’s response! We are not only offering food when the dog does not react. If your dog reacts in the presence of the trigger you are CCing to, this is information that you need more space BUT YOU STILL OWE YOUR DOG THE FOOD. This is different from teaching a specific operant behavior, we are simply creating an association and working at changing the emotional response.


Stay tuned for more on Counterconditioning's quiet cousin, Desensitization!


The photo in this post was taken by Kelsey Joy Murphey.