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Why counter conditioning won’t solve your dog’s reactivity:

By Thomas Magee
08.10.22
WKD march-65

Why Counter Conditioning won’t solve your Dogs reactivity

Counterconditioning is an approach which can be used to change a dogs reaction to a particular stimulus.

When working with reactive Dogs many trainers suggest using counterconditioning to change the dogs reaction to its distraction so rather than showing aggression/excitement the dog instead looks to the owner for a treat.

Basically, what the trainer is aiming for is that when the dog notices the distraction, instead of feeling anxiousness/excitement etc the dog instead thinks ‘when I see that thing, mum/dad gives me something nice’. Over time, the idea is that your dog will start to build a positive association with the distraction because each time it (the distraction) appears something good happens for your dog.

The problem with counterconditioning for the average owner is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because it simply isn’t practical. It doesn’t work because your dogs level of reactivity is too high for it to be interested in rewards. It doesn’t work because you cannot desensitise your dog in the real World. It doesn’t work because you don’t have the time to apply the approach properly over the many thousands of repetitions required. It doesn’t work because every session which is successful gets ruined by the next session.

It is pretty simple really. If you were petrified of flying, would you get on a plane for a plate of your favourite dessert? I thought not!

So why then, are dog trainers trying to convince you that a piece of sausage will interest your dog when it feels like it is about to be attacked by whatever the source or its reactivity is? There is only one plausible reason – because they don’t know other, better and proven ways to help you and your dog.

There is a way that you can use counter conditioning to help your dog though. It’s a way which is proven to work and has been used thousands of times to completely transform the lives of dogs and owners around the world.

I’ve mentioned above that the reason the typical approach to counter conditioning fails is because your dog isn’t interested enough in the reward when he/she is so concerned by the distraction, it is not practical to have access to people/dogs to practice with, you don’t have the time etc etc

In order for any approach to work then, it needs to be practical, fast, efficient and effective.

Step 1 

The first step is to get your dog in a position where he/she can work in much closer proximity to the distraction and be manageable if all of a sudden a new distraction appears from around a corner. The easiest way to do this is to lift your dogs level of attention to you. The more your dog is paying attention to you the less it notices its environment and the less it notices its environment, the less it will notice the cause of its reactivity as we move into further stages of training. This step doesn’t require food or toys to distract your dog. In fact, using food, toys, commands or your voice will cause this step to fail. Your dog must be paying attention to you because it has to, not because you are cajoling it to. This does not mean that you need to be horrible to your dog.

You simply need to increase your area of influence over your dogs attention so that your dog is more aware of where you are than what is in the immediate environment. The area of influence is like a forcefield around your Dog. Once you have it, anything outside of it will be irrelevant.

Step 2

Now that your dog is more interested in you than the environment you can begin to effectively counter condition your dog to the distraction that usually causes you issues. You need to do this at a distance to begin with and gradually work your dog closer. If you are doing this correctly you won’t spend long on this step. As you expose your dog to the distraction each time and re-engage its attention through interrupting it’s pattern your dog will become counter conditioned to pay attention to you in the presence of the distraction. Because we have counter-conditioned the dog to avoid the interrupter rather than trying to distract it with food/toys/voice your dog will be working hard to pay attention to you despite the distraction being present.

Step 3

With your dog engaging you more in the presence of the previous cause of its reactivity it is now time to begin working your dog in closer proximity to the distraction. As you move closer and closer it is really important to maintain ten out of ten attention from your dog so don’t be afraid to move slightly further away to regain attention before moving closer to the distraction again. 

If you are struggling with this approach it is because you are having issues with competing motivators. This is where your dog is more motivated to react than it is to pay attention to you. To learn more about how to overcome completing motivators click here

We have a free e-book detailing our exact approach to solving reactivity in dogs you can download it here

Counter-conditioning – the key to changing unwanted behaviour

Counter-condition has become a very commonly recommended approach to changing a dogs behaviour.

The idea is that through counter-conditioning we can change a dogs response to a particular stimulus.

For example, if your dog currently barks at your doorbell you can use counterconditioning to change its response to something else. A good example of this may be to counter condition your dog to go to its bed when it hears the doorbell.

To use counter conditioning to change your dogs behaviour the first thing you need to do is choose which behaviour you wish to change. Here are a few ideas

In order to change your dogs behaviour through counter conditioning you need to ensure that your dog notices the source of the the behaviour you wish to chance.

Using the doorbell as an example, get somebody to ring the doorbell and then give your dog a treat. Repeat this many times and your dog will soon be looking to you for a treat whenever it hears the doorbell rather than running and barking at the door.

What you will have achieved is counterconditioning in its simplest form. Now, instead of feeling excitement to see who is at the door your dog has associated the sound of the bell with receiving something nice from his/her owner.

Once you have done this and interrupted the pattern of unwanted behaviour you can teach your dog a whole new behaviour to perform instead of barking at the door such as going and waiting on his/her bed. 

There are limits to what can be achieved in the real world with counter conditioning and it all depends on the severity of your dogs motivation to do the behaviour which you find undesirable. For example, if your dog is more motivated to react to the doorbell, either because its guarding the house or because its uncontrollably excited to greet the visitor than it is interested in what you are offering it as a counter conditioner then it will not work. We call this situation competing motivation and you can learn more about it here.

Competing motivation

Do you get frustrated with trying to train you dog because you cannot find anything which motivates your dog strong enough to distract it from the issue you are trying to overcome?

Is your dog much more interested in the other dog/person/animal than the tasty treat you are trying to distract it with?

If so, you are struggling with what we call competing motivations. This is where your dogs motivation to perform the behaviour you are trying to get rid of is higher than its level of motivation for what you are offering.

In order to solve this issue you need to do one of two things. 

To raise your dogs level of motivation for what you are offering you need to find a way to make it worth more to your dog. If you are using food there are a few things you can try.

In addition to increasing your dogs motivation for the reward you can also decrease its interest in the distraction.

When trying to overcome competing motivation the tips above can help. If they aren’t working though, not all is lost. There are other ways to change your dogs motivation and overcome competing motivations. You can read about them here

When you can’t overcome your dogs level of distraction

There is little more frustrating in dog training than trying to get your dog interested in a reward when it is much more interested in engaging in the behaviour you don’t want rather than the one you do.

If this is a cause of frustration for you then you are struggling with competing motivation. I wrote an overview of the subject which you can read here. If the advice in that article isn’t helping though, all is not lost. This article discusses how you can motivate any dog to do what you want regardless of it not liking treats/toys/fuss etc.

The problem you are encountering is because your dog is more motivated by the thing that distracts it rather than the thing you are offering it.

If you have tried to lower the level of the distraction and lift the value of rewards with no luck then you need to find a way to motivate your dog to do what you want.

When most dog trainers talk about motivation they are talking about positive motivation. Things that will motivate your dog to more to do what you want.

There is another type of motivation which you can use. The type which motivates your dog to do the thing you don’t want it to do less. This type of motivation is more powerful and it’s the only type you can use if you cannot motivate your dog positively.

As much as certain trainers will try and tell you otherwise, any living organism will do more to avoid something we don’t like more than it will to gain something it would like.

Just because we are talking negative doesn’t mean it has to be horrible. I find my alarm clock negative when it goes off but I don’t find it horrible.

Also, I believe it to be much fairer to apply some negative motivation to your dog for a short amount of time rather than it be exposed to a greater stress from outside sources. To put this into perspective, if your dog is reactive to other dogs, it is doing so because it is anxious when they are closeby. If you cannot find a way to help your dog through this issue it will experience this anxiousness for the rest of its life.

I always tell owners, it is much better to be told off by your parent than the Police and the same is true for your dog. Your dog would much prefer for you, who he/she knows and trusts to apply some pressure to help them rather than the environment, which they can’t control, cause them anxiety every time they step outside of the house.

In order for this approach to work, all you need to do is find something that motivates your dog not to do the behaviour one level more than it is motivated to do so. So if your dog 5/10 needs to react to another dog for example, you need to find a way to motivate your dog 6/10 not too. It would be completely inappropriate to be 10/10 negative to solve a 5/10 problem.

Quite often, once you have done this effectively your dog will begin taking the positive reward that it had no interest in previously and you can move forward positively.

To help with this approach I would always advise that you teach your dog an alternative behaviour first, this will reduce the level of negative required to overcome the issue. You can read about using alternative behaviours here

Alternative Behaviours

Many trainers talk about using alternative behaviours to solve issues. 

It is a technique that can work very well for lots of problems but also, like many others, has its limitations.

The idea is, if you can teach your dog to do perform a behaviour which is incompatible with the problem behaviour then your dog will no longer do it.

For example, if your dog jumps up on you when you come home but you teach him/her to sit then your dog cannot jump up if it is sitting instead.

There are lots of ways you can use incompatible behaviours to help you achieve success when training your dog. Here are some examples;

The issue with this approach occurs when your dogs excitement to jump up on you overrides its motivation to sit when asked. You see, there is a huge difference between a dog understanding a behaviour and it being able to reliably perform it when under heavy distraction. In order to resolve this issue you need to understand about competing motivators

When out in public the best application of incompatible behaviour is to train your dog to be more attentive to you than everything else. This one are of focus literally removes all common on lead behaviour issues.

When your dog is properly paying attention to you he/she cannot;

In the home, the best application of incompatible behaviour is to go to bed. When lay on its bed a Dog cannot;

In order to train your dog incompatible behaviours you first need to decide which behaviour you wish to reduce and then think of a good behaviour to replace it with. Once you know which behaviour you want to train you should train it separately to the unwanted behaviour before simply giving the cue for the new behaviour before the unwanted one occurs.

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