Using Counter-Conditioning for Fearful Dogs

This is the first in our series about conditioning.

Counter-conditioning is an essential part of working with dogs with fear, anxiety and reactivity issues. Rather than suppressing a behavior such as fear biting through aversive methods, I work to remedy the fear itself.

Let’s say you have an intense fear of snakes—so much so you scream and jump around each time you see one. What would happen if your partner got mad and screamed at you each time you displayed this behavior? What if they tried to physically hold you still so you couldn’t get away from the snake, or covered your mouth so you couldn’t scream? Would this help your fear? Of course not. Your partner has only taught you not to display your fear in front of them, and likely caused you to become afraid of your partner as well.

In this scenario, it’s easy to see how using aversive techniques to “fix” fear is not appropriate.

If a dog is fearful of other dogs and reacts by barking, lunging or snarling, aversive techniques used by their human partner will be ineffective. While tools such as shock or prong collars may suppress the behaviors associated with the fear rather quickly, the fear itself will still be present, and will likely present itself as something much worse or more violent later.

When dealing with a behavior that is caused by fear you must first look at the fear itself. Your reaction to the snake is a visceral response of the fear. Stopping the reaction doesn’t cease the fear. To truly change your external behavior, we must first change your internal fear.

Counter-conditioning is the key to fixing fear reactivity. We begin associating scary triggers with something positive regardless of the dog’s behavior. Slowly, we begin raising our criteria to what the dog must do in order to earn a reward. Keep in mind, this can be a long and slow process.

Let’s use the example above. To begin counter-conditioning you, I start by placing you a safe distance from a snake. Each time you see the snake, regardless of your external behavior, I give you $100. I slowly move you closer to the snake while continuing to reward you with $100 each time you see it. How long do you think it would take before your external behavior started to cease because your feelings about the snake started to change? You may still not like snakes, but you’ve learned to tolerate them because of the emotional change.

If your dog is fearful around certain triggers, please find a positive trainer in your area that understands the process. Do not work with a trainer who focuses on stopping the external behavior, especially if they use aversive techniques when training.