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What Is Counterconditioning? Turning a Negative Into A Positive

Definition: Counterconditioning is functional analytic principle that is part of behaviour analysis and involves the conditioning of an unwanted behaviour or response to a stimulus into a desired behaviour or response by the association of positive actions with the stimulus.

In short, it is a technique that focuses on changing our responses to stimuli.

Conditioning occurs everywhere, all the time, with or without training or our knowledge. Most of us have dogs that get excited when they see us pick up a leash. A leash itself has no special meaning to dogs but that leash is linked with walks and outings and with repetition that leash can trigger as much excitement as the walk itself. Our dogs have been conditioned to respond this way over time.

While we have actively set out to condition our dogs to behave in a certain way, we can also involuntarily condition our dogs to respond, both positively or negatively or in an undesirable way.

When this happens, something that we can do is counter-condition. Counterconditioning means changing the pet’s emotional response, feelings or attitude toward a stimulus or cue.

What is Conditioning?

Conditioning is quite simply, learning by association.

It is when our dog associates one stimuli with something that follows. Dogs learn through association. For example, a clicker has absolutely zero value to a dog whatsoever until you condition your dog through clicker training. When you “click” the clicker, your dog is then given a treat. With enough repetition, an association will be made, and the clicker will signify that a treat is on the way.

When Conditioning Triggers Unwanted Behaviour or Anxiety.

All dogs will have experiences throughout their lives that will condition them to respond to cues and stimulus with or without human intervention. While conditioning can be positive, dogs can also make negative associations with specific cues and stimulus and therefore can behave or respond in an undesirable way.

For example: You go into the cupboard and get a bottle of shampoo and a towel both of which would have no value or significance whatsoever until a repetition indicated that shampoo and towel = BATH TIME.

For a dog that enjoys the fuss associated with a bath they may even start to feel excitement at the upcoming activity, but for a dog who is not a lover of the bath, this will generally bring out a fight or flight response causing your dog to run and hide and do everything possible to avoid what is coming up.

As time goes on, the behaviour will build. Your dog will not grow out of this. They are conditioned to respond in a certain way and depending on the individual dog, allowing your dog to continue this behaviour can aid in developing a very complex behavioural issue. This is when counterconditioning will come into play.

What is Counterconditioning?

Counterconditioning is training a dog to display a behaviour that is different than his current reaction to a stimulus.

Counterconditioning is an effective way to change behaviour. Often used in conjunction with desensitisation, together, they can be powerful methods to reverse negative associations and thus prevent a negative response or behaviour. Desensitisation provides a means of safely exposing a dog to the stimulus at a level at or below which the undesirable or fearful behaviour is likely to occur. Counterconditioning is used to change the pet’s attitude or emotional response to a stimulus. This method can be especially beneficial for dogs that act in a fearful, anxious, or aggressive manner.

For a dog, there is rarely “no reason” for responding in a certain way. More than likely there will be a trigger. The idea here is to identify that trigger and then begin to change their response to it by creating an alternative association. Turning a negative, into a positive.

For example: a dog who displays anxious behaviour when a towel is picked up, may be triggered to behave or react in a certain way when he sees a towel or even hears the towel cupboard open.

To begin counterconditioning, in this instance you would pick up a towel, if you dog had no reaction you could then reward the dog. If your dog did have a reaction you place the towel down and would go on about your day as normal. Repeating this several times throughout the day. At some point you could even pick up the towel and give the dog its dinner.

How To Counter-condition your dog

The most important thing to note, is to go slow.

It can be easy to say that an entire situation makes your dog react but for counterconditioning to be effective, each trigger needs to be pin pointed and worked on individually.

For example: Everything in the lead up to bath time could make your dog anxious. It is easy to say that each bath prep activity ignites the same response but rather than just avoiding bathing your dog all together, you need to deconstruct your routine, gradually desensitise your dog to each cue and then counter condition with a positive association.

Step 1. Determine EXACTLY what provokes your dog’s reaction.

Go slow and pay attention. If you are in a situation where your dog behaves in a certain way be sure you concentrate on the lead up and the trigger that ultimately makes your dog react. When you pinpoint the trigger that will be your starting point. That is the first cue/stimulus to work through. Devise ways to make the experience less intense.

For example: begin your bath prep routine and work through each sequence slowly. If you pick up the shampoo with no reaction, move on to the next, if you get a towel and your dog begins to pant and pace or attempt to flee, start there.

Step 2. Pair each cue or stimuli with a positive

Help your pet to associate positive things with the situation, rather than negative. This can be through treats, play, training, praise, or affection. Be mindful that you are not rewarding the original response. This means that you have to reward the dog before they have a negative response - too late with the reward and you will only reinforce the negative behaviour patterns.

Step 3. Do not rush.

Do not move on to the next cue or stimulus until they are ready.

For example: If your pet bolts when you walk to the cupboard, do not begin counterconditioning with picking up a towel or shampoo until they are okay with cupboard aka the first trigger.


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