Information

A Guide to Dog Behavior Modification Techniques and Terms


Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

What Is Dog Behavior Modification?

As the words imply, behavior modification entails modifying a dog's behavior for the purposes of increasing or decreasing wanted and unwanted behaviors. Behavior modification programs are employed by dog behavior specialists and range from dog trainers who are well-versed in dog behavior, to certified applied animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists. As with any field, the techniques used for dog modification programs vary from one trainer/behavior specialist to another, and not all programs are necessarily the best to use.

For instance, many dog trainers and behavior specialists agree that the indiscriminate use of aversives may be deleterious and may actually contribute to further behavior problems on top of the ones already being displayed. With the resurgence of the "dominance alpha wolf theory" fueled by Cesar Millans' National Geographic show, Dog Whisperer, the number of dog bites are one the rise. Indeed, according to veterinarian and animal behaviorist Sophia Yin, dog behavior experts agree that dog owners who mimic what they see on television is one of the contributing factors for the 4.7 million dog bites that occur each year.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior is concerned about the re-emergence of dominance-based theories where dogs are forced into submission because of the belief of them attempting to attain "higher rank". Indeed, countless dog owners believe and continue to believe that behavior problems stem from a dog's desire to "rule the home." However, a better understanding of how dogs learn clearly demonstrates that behaviors such as failure to obey a command, excessive barking, or pulling on the leash occur mainly because these behaviors have been inadvertently reinforced, and alternatively, more appropriate behaviors have not been implemented.

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers does not support the belief that dogs are attempting to "dominate" humans and believes that the use of physical and psychological intimidation will only contribute to creating an adversial relationship characterized by miscommunication and misunderstadining, something that only leads to anxiety, stress and fear,and that ultimately ruins the dog/owner relationship.

Dogs ultimately thrive in an environment where they are provided with clear structure and communication. Desirable behaviors are rewarded, whereas, undesirable behaviors are discouraged by implementing clear rules and avoiding any forms of psychological and physical intimidation. Modern scientifically-based dog training and modern dog behavior modification focuses on teamwork, and ultimately, the creation of a harmonious relationship between dogs and owners.

"Because fear and anxiety are common causes of aggression and other behavior problems, the use of punishment can directly exacerbate the problem by increasing the animal’s fear or anxiety"

— (AVSAB 2007).

Test Your Knowledge of Operant vs. Classical Conditioning:

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. A dog hears you open a bag of dog food and starts salivating
    • Classical conditioning
    • Operant conditioning
  2. Your dog is learning to fetch because every time he brings the ball, you reward him by tossing it again
    • Classical Conditioning
    • Operant Conditioning
  3. At the first sight of lightening, your dog starts shaking in fear of an approaching thunderstorm
    • Classical Conditioning
    • Operant Conditioning
  4. Your dog is learning to stop jumping on you because you turn your back away every time he jumps
    • Classical Conditioning
    • Operant Conditioning
  5. Your dog instinctively learns to stay away from cigarettes because he got burnt once
    • Operant conditioning
    • Classical conditioning

Answer Key

  1. Classical conditioning
  2. Operant Conditioning
  3. Classical Conditioning
  4. Operant Conditioning
  5. Classical conditioning

Interpreting Your Score

If you got between 0 and 1 correct answer: What is Pavlov? Sounds like a brand of whiskey!

If you got between 2 and 3 correct answers: You are still an apprentice. Try reading the difference between classical and operant another time.

If you got 4 correct answers: You are getting there!

If you got 5 correct answers: Are you a dog behavior expert or what? Congrats!

Skinner Versus Pavlov: A Guide to Operant and Classical Conditioning

There are many ways dogs learn, but if you are training your dog to respond to a cue or if your goal is to change his emotional response to a trigger, you will very likely use basics of operant and classical conditioning. The word conditioning simply means "learning." You do not have to have a degree in behavioral science to understand the meaning of these two; we will take a look at each using some common examples in your daily interactions with your dog.

Operant Conditioning

In operant conditioning, your dog learns to "operate" in his environment because his behavior is maintained by consequences being either reinforcement or punishment.

For instance, in the case of reinforcement, if you tell your dog to "sit" and upon sitting down, you deliver a cookie, your dog learned that compliance in "operating" results in a pleasant consequence; the cookie. If you reward the behavior often enough, especially during your dog's initial stages of learning, you will see an increase in the sitting behavior. This abides to Thorndike's law of effect “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation". A behavior is therefore, said to be reinforced when it occurs with a greater frequency.

B. F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, in his Skinner box experiment, delivered food to rats that engaged in a target behavior which was pressing a lever. After careful observations, he came to the conclusion that "behaviors that are reinforced, tend to be repeated and strengthen, whereas, behaviors that are not reinforced tend to extinguish and weaken."

In the case of punishment, if your dog is wandering in the woods and gets sprayed by a skunk one day, he may be shocked enough to avoid going near the black and white animal once and for all. He may, therefore, decide to "operate" in his environment by running the other way upon spotting one. In this case, according to Thorndike's law of effect, "responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation. A behavior, is therefore, said to be punished when it occurs with less frequency.

*Note: Punishment is not determined by using "hostile" or aversive methods but rather by its effect on the rate of the behavior. In behavior science, punishment, therefore, does not mean hostile, but rather, means that it causes a behavior to occur with less frequency.

Therefore, to sum things up, the environment around dogs may lead to behavioral changes because of consequences. From a dog's perspective there are three possibilities taking place when faced with stimuli.

  1. Neutral operants: the environment neither increases nor decreases the probability of a behavior being repeated. To a dog, the color of the sky is pretty irrelevant and has no effect whatsoever on his behavior.
  2. Reinforcers: the environment increases the probability of a behavior being repeated. A dog may, therefore, increase its jumping behavior because he is given attention when he does this (positive reinforcement) or a dog may increase the behavior of hiding behind a couch because when he does so, the owner stops chasing him (negative reinforcement)
  3. Punishers: the environment decreases the probability of a behavior being repeated. Punishment weakens and extinguishes behavior. A dog may stop pestering a cat after the cat has scratched him (positive punishment) or a dog may stop jumping on the owner because the owner leaves the room every time he engages in such behavior (negative punishment).

Note: We will see this in more detail in the four quadrants of operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

In classical conditioning, a stimulus signals the occurrence of a second stimulus. The father of this form of learning is Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov. In a study on digestive processes, Ivan Pavlov was evaluating the role of salivary glands. He employed several dogs for his experiments, and as good droolers, the dogs were salivating abundantly at the sight of food. This is a normal, natural response known as an "unconditioned response". The dogs, indeed, did not have to learn to drool at the sight of food, because this is innate. However, as time went by, he noticed that the dogs started salivating even when no food was in sight. Indeed, they were drooling at the simple sight of any person wearing a lab coat! How did this happen? The dogs simply learned to associate the people working there with food. To further prove these associations, Ivan Pavlov started ringing a bell before feeding food, and with time, the noise of the bell alone had dogs drooling. The bell which was a neutral stimulus (meaning it initially meant nothing to the dog) became a conditioned stimulus (the dog learned to associate the bell with food) causing a conditioned response (the drooling). There are several conditioned stimuli surrounding dogs each day. Following are examples of conditioned reinforcers:

  • The sight of the leash. To dogs a leash initially means nothing (neutral stimulus), but with time, they start associating it with walks (conditioned stimulus) and gets excited at its sight (conditioned response).
  • The doorbell. To a dog the noise of a door bell means nothing at first (neutral stimulus), but with time, he starts associating it with people coming inside the home (conditioned stimulus) and starts getting excited/nervous/anxious (conditioned response).
  • A clicker. To a dog the clicking noise of a clicker means nothing initially, (neutral stimulus) but after charging it by pairing it with treats, the clicker is associated with threats (conditioned stimulus) and the dog is all happy as soon as you take the clicker out of your pocket (conditioned response).

Classical Conditioning vs. Operant Conditioning

Confused about classical and operant conditioning? The two are different, yet similar in some ways. Here are some tips on how to tell them apart.

Operant Conditioning

  • B.F. Skinner is considered the father of operant conditioning.
  • The behavior the dog engages in is voluntary (the dog willfully sits upon request).
  • The dog rationally associates a voluntary behavior with a consequence (the dog learns the equation "if I sit I get a treat").
  • The dog is an active member which entails making choices based on consequences.

Classical Conditioning

  • Ivan Pavlov is considered the father of classical conditioning.
  • The behavior the dog engages in is involuntary (physiologic or emotional responses are automatic reflexes).
  • The dog develops an involuntary response to a conditioned stimulus (the dog drools at the sight of the food bowl because it has learned to associate it with food).
  • The dog is passive and learns without performing any voluntary actions.

The Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning

There are various methods dog trainers and dog behavior experts resort to in order to make a dog operant.

Note: It is important to point out that in behavior terms, the words positive and negative are not used to mean good or bad, but rather, positive means addition and negative means subtraction. Also, as mentioned earlier, the term reinforcement denotes a behavior that increases in frequency, whereas, the term punishment, is not used to entail anything hostile, but simply denotes a behavior that decreases in frequency.

  1. Positive reinforcement: In this case, positive means adding something so to make a behavior increase, (reinforcement). Example: you start giving (add) attention when your dog jumps.With time, the behavior of jumping increases.
  2. Negative reinforcement: In this case, negative means removing something so to make a behavior increase (reinforcement): Example: you stop staring (subtract) at your dog in a threatening way the moment he looks away. With time, the behavior of looking away increases.
  3. Positive punishment: In this case, positive means adding something so to make a behavior decrease. Example: in this case you start giving (add) a squirt of water in the face the moment your dog barks. With time, the behavior of barking decreases.
  4. Negative punishment: In this case negative means removing something so to make a behavior decrease. Example: you stop giving (subtract) attention when your dog jumps. With time, the behavior of jumping decreases.

Common Dog Behavior Modification Techniques and Terms

Following are some common and not so common behavior modification terms used when dealing with dog behavior.

Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT)

Coined by Grisha Steward, this is a behavior modification program where the dog is allowed to move away from a trigger (and is also given treats) when it performs an appropriate behavior under threshold. The appropriate behavior is marked with a clicker and the dog is rewarded with two primary reinforcers: the act of moving away from the trigger and food.

LAT (Look at that)

Coined by Leslie McDevitt, this form of behavior modification teaches the dog that it's rewarding to look at the trigger rather than frightening. It's based on counterconditioning, as it changes the dog's emotional response.

Counterconditioning

The process during which the dog's emotional response is changed. If a dog has been conditioned to react fearfully to a certain stimulus, in counterconditioning we are undoing this association by creating new associations which ultimately change the emotional response. So if bikes create fear, with counterconditioning the dog would learn to associate bikes with something pleasant. If a dog would be offered a treat every time he sees a bike, with time, he would start looking forward to seeing bikes. Counterconditioning works best if done with systematic desensitization.

Desensitization

This means to make a dog less sensitive to a trigger known to cause reactivity. It takes several small steps in carefully planned increments for it to work. To grant success, the trigger known for causing reactivity needs to be presented in such a way as to be less threatening. This entails working from a farther distance, making the trigger less noisy, keeping it still rather than moving etc. After repeated exposure done under threshold levels, the dog should demonstrate a diminished emotional response to the trigger. When the desensitization process is performed incorrectly and the dog is exposed to the trigger at a high level of intensity, the opposite may take place which is sensitization. On the other hand, the effects of systematic desensitization can be amplified when accompanied by 'the cherry on the sundae", which is counterconditioning.

Bar is Open, Bar is Closed

This behavior modification method focuses on desensitization and counterconditioning in a well-structured way, demonstrating how the feared stimulus is clearly what brings positive happenings.

Extinction

The process during which a behavior stops from occurring. When a behavior that had a history of being reinforced is no longer fed with reinforcement, it eventually extinguishes; however, extinction bursts are not uncommon. According to dog trainer Terry Ryan, extinction bursts are sign that the training/ behavior modification program is working. If for instance, a dog was used to pawing at the owner to be pet and the owner complied most of the time, once the owner stops petting, the dog may reduce the behavior of asking to be pet but at some point the pawing may increase considerably. This is an extinction burst which is the dog's way of saying " hey, I am here, don't you see me? I guess I must increase my pawing and nudging behavior since it is no longer working". How to deal with an extinction burst? By continuing to ignore the behavior and avoiding to reward. Rewarding at this point would prove deleterious.

Flooding

This is exposing a dog to the trigger the dog reacts to in full intensity, in hopes the dog gets used to it with time. For instance, should a dog be scared of water, this would translate into throwing the dog into the water, or in the case of a dog fearful of gunshots, this would lead to tying him up right next to a shooting range. While this method works at times, it has risks of leading to sensitization, which is the opposite of desensitization, therefore, it is not highly recommended. This is one of the preferred training methods of Cesar Millan, and sadly, the dogs exposed to his cocktail of frightening stimuli, appear in the eyes of dog experts quite, stressed, fearful and very uncomfortable.

Habituation

This phenomena takes place when the dog stops responding to a stimulus after repeated exposure according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. A new dog living next to a busy highway, may startle at first, but may generally habituate to the noise over time.

Management

When a behavior problem takes place, it is important to reduce the frequency of the behavior. The more a dog engages in an unwanted behavior, the more it reinforces. For instance, if your dog raids the thrash can at night when left unsupervised, it is easier to simply install baby gates, invest in a trash bin with an irremovable lid, or close the kitchen door to prevent access to the trash can. Management may sound obvious, but countless dog owners allow their dogs to be set up for failure by not engaging in what are simple, almost obvious behaviors. Some more examples on how to manage unwanted behaviors:

  • Crating a dog to prevent him from tearing apart the couch when unsupervised
  • Installing a pen to prevent a dog from escaping
  • Keeping shoes away from dogs that chew them
  • Avoiding exposure to other dogs when a dog is clearly aggressive towards other dogs
  • Investing in a no-pull harness for a dog that pulls

It is important to recognize that when feasible, management should be a temporary solution to a problem. The goal should be to use management for some time while working on dealing with the underlying problem. This means that if your dog chews your shoes, you should keep them out of reach when you are away, but you must also train your dog that they are not appropriate chew items by training your dog the leave it/drop it command and by praising your dog when chewing the appropriate items (chew toys).

Threshold

This is an imaginary line drawn between relaxing and being out of control. Over the threshold means working at levels where the dog panics and is out of control. Often, this occurs the closer the dog gets to a trigger known for causing reactivity. Sub-threshold means when a dog's level of stress is low enough so that the dog's cognitive functions are able to work. Often working sub-threshold entails working at a distance from a trigger known for causing reactivity.

These are only a few of the many dog behavior modification techniques employed by dog behavior experts. Each trainer/behavior expert has his/her preferred.

For Further Reading

  • The Best Leashes and Techniques to Train a Strong Do...
    Wondering what leash is the best for keeping your strong dog under control? Learn what leashes work best, but most of all, learn how to train loose leash walking.

Questions & Answers

Question: My 10-month old German Shepherd chases, chews and snaps at her tail. The vet wants to treat for seizure activity. I am not willing to do that. Do you have any advice?

Answer: There can be several causes for tail chasing and finding the underlying cause can sometimes be difficult. Your vet likely is thinking to do a trial of antiseizure drugs and see whether it helps. Perhaps consulting with a veterinary behaviorist may be insightful. Here are some possible causes of tail biting in dogs: https://hubpages.com/dogs/How-to-Stop-a-Dog-From-B...

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 04, 2020:

Hi GB,

I suspect that rather than expressing anger, your dog is expressing anxiety, more specifically separation anxiety. Dogs with separation anxiety tend to eliminate when left alone. For proper diagnosis and treatment, it would be best to record his behavior when left alone and have a professional take a look.

GB on April 04, 2020:

Hi,

I have a very smart and sensitive pit bull who was rescued at age 2. My problem right now, is that he expresses anger by peeing and pooping inside. For example, if I take my other 2 house-trained elderly dogs for a shorter walk before his 3 mile bike run, I inevitably return to an indoor accident. He will still go again on his run.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 27, 2018:

Provide a fenced area where your dog can dig to his heart's content. Bury toys there and praise for using this area. Dogs have a natural instinct to dig and allowing them to do so in an area, can really make them happy. Many dog owners use sand and build a digging area just for that.

Joyce Hirstj12 on December 26, 2018:

My 8 month old min pin frantically digs holes, ruining my yard. How can I work to deter this?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 19, 2018:

Yes, there is hope. Consult with a dog behavior professional well-versed in using positive, humane behavior modification. Th Pet Professional Guild has several members who take aggression cases.

rmpoust on November 15, 2018:

We adopted a Texas Heeler from the SPCA. We have strong suspicions that the dog was abused. He is definitely reacting out of fear, but he is showing aggressive behaviors that we can't tolerate. He is strong and has very sharp teeth that could do serious damage. He has bitten feet and broken the skin. He bit two of us in the hand, but that was early on and he hasn't done that since. I love this dog and want to keep him, but not at the risk of our other dog or visitors. Is there any hope for him?

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 18, 2018:

Hello Lisa, You will find some tips for the issue you are facing in the link below, although I would recommend having a professional assist you considering that there are always risks associated with behavior modification:/dogs/Why-is-my-Dog-Protecti...

lisajohnson1234 on July 28, 2018:

My dog is becoming aggressive when we try to move him from the bed, or couch, he snaps and growls

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 01, 2016:

pipinita, sorry this comes a bit late,/dogs/Secret-Strategies-for-...

pipinita21 on August 25, 2016:

I would appreciate if you can recommend a book or article because my 14 month old yorkie has started pooping in the carpet. I was so proud because he seemed to be so well trailned and now I simply don't know how to correct this problem. He knows where is his box but he still does it in the carpet.... I am so frustrated!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 15, 2016:

Hello Heidi, sounds like you are doing a very good job! Kudos to you. I also am a big fan on clicker training and use it a whole lot. Thanks so much for following me and reading the articles on my website.

Heldi on July 13, 2016:

This video really makes me sad. In my country, Croatia, unfortunately, people still follow Cesar´s approach.

I work with my dog using clicker, for everything, simple cues such as sit/stay, walk on different surfaces, to more complex change of behaviour/emotion about something, impulse control when he sees cat/squirrel etc.

He is my first dog, (I was affraid of dogs and liked cats more), so I am really proud of how we are doing.

It took me time to find right source of information, to TEACH ME how to train him and I always return to your hubs, Alexadry. I think in these 2 years (my dog is 2 and a half years old now) I reread your hubs from word to word dosens of time.

I am really thankful for your time and effort to bring your knowledge to us!

I also read your articles on dailydogdiscoveries.com and recommend to do so to my friends/dog owners.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 30, 2014:

You can find many of my hubs on pinterest on a variety of subjects and they all offer a plethora of tips. If you go to my profile page follow me on pinterest where all my hubs are divided in different boards that may be helpful to you. Look up my board on dog aggression, in particular look for the hub on threshold levels, LAT and counterconditioning. Have a force-free trainer or behavior consultant walk you through these methods. Best of luck!

Larisa on May 29, 2014:

Great information, thank you so much! We are first time dog owners of a wonderful Samoyed, 1.5 yrs old. A number of factors (we're guessing) have contributed to a drastic change in behaviour lately: from the most playful, sociable dog, to an anxious, defensive and incessantly barking dog. Aside from hiring a professional we need have the abc of bringing our Zoë back to her happy self. Any tips would be hugely appreciated, clearly you know digs!! Regards

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 03, 2014:

Brenda, I am sorry I didn't understand your request. Is your dog wanting to be by himself, or is he clingy following you everywhere?

Brenda on May 03, 2014:

I would like some one on pup want stay by it self and follows from room to room

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 02, 2012:

Thank you, I am happy to hear you found my hub on dog behavior modification interesting, thank you for sharing.

Pamela Dapples from Arizona now on May 01, 2012:

Really good information. I'm especially surprised how unrespected Cesar Millan's methods are. I'd only seen his show for 20 minutes. I've shared this hub with friends on Facebook and now Sharing it here. Great hub.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 30, 2012:

thank you, I really appreciate your feedback on my guide on dog behavior modification

jaswinder64 from Toronto, Canada. on April 30, 2012:

Good article and nice pictures.


Be patient if you have to find a new home for a dog

If you decide that a new home is the only option for a dog, check out Best Friends' online guide, Rehoming a Dog or Cat. It covers the basics of using ads and flyers, photos, networking and online adoption sites, and much more. Once you've read through the guide, you may want to access the following articles from our resource library for more in-depth information on select topics:

A great adoption ad can be a real attention grabber. Best Friends staff writer Elizabeth Doyle offers some clever advice about writing effective adoption ads: Pet Profiles: How to Write Animal Bios to Get Your Adoptables Into Homes.

Distributing flyers with a dog's photo and adoption profile is an excellent way of getting the word out about the need for a new home. A free, easy-to-use flyer maker program is available online. It allows you to create quick and easy flyers (no special skill required) that can be both printed out and saved as digital files for emailing and posting on social network sites.

Individuals can also post pets for adoption on Petbond.com.

Many people seeking to re-home a pet turn to shelters or rescue groups first, but they are often already stretched to their limits. If they can't take your animal, ask them for a courtesy posting on their website or a chance to bring your pet to one of their adoption events.

To find animal welfare groups in your community, search Petfinder. Additional listings for animal organizations can be found at WorldAnimal.net.

If you are trying to place a specific breed of dog, you can find local listings of breed rescue groups by searching online. Here's a sample search combination: cocker spaniel + breed rescue + Montana.

Some people are hesitant to publicize information about their pets because they fear that people who would treat the pet unkindly will respond. Remember, you are in control of your pet and where he or she is placed. Don't be afraid to ask for references and follow up on them. For more information about screening potential adopters, and more ideas to help you re-home your pet, read the Best Friends guide Rehoming a Dog or Cat.


A behaviorist or trainer can help you figure out the best approach for managing your dog's aggression. In most cases, you'll use positive reinforcement to teach your dog new behaviors.  

For example, if your dog is mildly aggressive toward strangers, start off by standing far away from someone your dog doesn't know. You should be far enough away so that your dog doesn't start to growl or snap. Then, reward with lots of treats and praise as you gradually decrease the distance between your dog and the stranger, continuing to use positive reinforcement.

Ideally, your dog will begin to learn that strangers equal treats and you'll see a reduction in its aggression. This same procedure can work for getting your dog used to a variety of other situations.


Desensitizing and Counter-conditioning (CC&D)

Desensitizing and counter-conditioning (CC&D) is a wide spread behavior modification technique whose ultimate goal is to change the emotional response (which leads to an overall change in the dog’s approach to the subject) towards a given “trigger” that caused the dog to react in the first place.

On this page you will find the details that you need in order to successfully create a rehabilitation plan. You will also find information about dog calming signals, at the bottom of the page, which are useful techniques to develop a language of signals that may help your dog stay calmer in certain situations.

Desensitizing and counter-conditioning is actually a combination of two different techniques that work well hand in hand, in order to produce the ultimate goal which is a different emotional response from our dog to a certain stimulus (or so called “trigger” in dog training circles). This is any situation, object, person, etc. that provokes a fearful reaction in a dog.

To start we can explain the desensitizing and counter-conditioning concepts

Systematic Desensitization

This type of behavior therapy was perfected by psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe and the goal was to change the fear and anxiety based responses to certain stimuli for his patients (humans). The same technique is used for dogs.

The goal of this behavior therapy is to expose the subject to a low level trigger which evokes the unwanted response in certain scenarios, and then to decrease the distance and the amount of stimulus gradually to where the subject can “control” the situation emotionally.

This is the opposite approach to the flooding in dog training technique which is based on exposing a subject to the highest level of stimulus, provoking in most cases, the highest level of response in order for a dog to “go through it” until he “realizes” that there is actually nothing dangerous in that particular situation.

Counter-conditioning

Counter-conditioning is basically a classical conditioning in which we are pairing something that was producing an unpleasant response with something pleasant instead. In most cases treats are used, this is for a few reasons

  • The presence of food (treats) and eating releases a certain chemical cocktail in a dog’s brain that naturally helps the dog relax
  • Since we use treats in various different exercises where there are no fear based situations, our dogs create a positive emotional response to the presence of treats which helps them, in this case, in “fighting” the fear/anxiety response
  • Food is the best indicator to read the dog’s level of stress, fear and anxiety. If you go too fast (which will probably happen) through the levels of desensitizing, and your dog is not ready, he will stop taking treats if the level of stimulus (trigger) is too high for him. In this case, take a step or two back in your training.

By pairing food with a trigger at a sub-threshold distance (a distance where a dog has little or mild to no response) we are getting the “looking forward to” instead of the fearful aggressive response. This process is also known as conditioned emotional response (CER) and the purpose is to change the complete emotional response towards something that was considered to be unpleasant to the dog before.

How long does desensitizing and counter-conditioning take?

This is, in most cases, a long term procedure that can vary anywhere from weeks to years. Exactly when you can consider yourself and your dog to be “done” with desensitizing and counter-conditioning therapy is difficult to say. It depends on the dog, the amount and strength of the stimulus, the handler, the environment, etc. and in some cases it is even a lifetime process.

It is important to mention that even if you never fully resolve the issue (although this is rarely the case) just lowering the dog’s response to a certain trigger will help him in managing his fear/anxiety levels.

Far too often, I meet with dog owners that believe that a certain behavior appeared “out of the blue”, only to later discover upon meeting the dog, that he is a fearful temperament type of dog. Just like any other behavior pattern in a dog’s life, fear and anxiety tends to grow and will “spill over” to parts of a dog’s life that never before exposed a fear. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to help your dog with these issues otherwise they will progressively get worse for him.

Where to start with desensitizing and counter-conditioning

Although every situation is unique, there are a few steps that we can use as a guide in getting started:

  • 1) Locate the stressors (triggers)
  • 2) Make a training plan
  • 3) Find a “safety distance”

These should be enough to start, and I will repeat again as with any other behavior modification (or therapy, if you prefer) it is always advisable to contact a professional for advice and help.

1) Locate the stressors

The first step in desensitizing and counter-conditioning is to locate the stressors (triggers) to which your dog reacts. These are unique for each dog and they may be related to certain environments, situations, objects, animals, humans, etc. Understanding what provokes the fear/anxiety responses in your dog is your starting point.

2) Make a training plan

This is a very important step. The better your plan is, the fewer issues that you will encounter during the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process. Making a plan involves

  • a) Creating levels
  • b) Organizing environments
  • c) Creating situations

A) Creating levels

Every plan will have to be broken down into levels. Depending on the issue, the dog’s temperament, etc. these factors will all determine the number of levels and if necessary, mid-levels or other improvisation in order to help your dog get through each one. What is important about each level is the distance. Although there are no rules set in stone about this, it is more of a personal choice based on the dog, the stressors, the environment, etc.

Once your dog is comfortable with one distance, try moving closer by about five metres or more (depending on the dog) and then try again from there, if your dog seems to overreact at this distance, move back to the previous successful distance and then progress to only half the distance, etc.

B) Organizing environments

One of the first things about this process is that once you decide to go through with desensitizing and counter-conditioning, you will need to organize your daily routines and environment in order to avoid getting into situations where your dog will be exposed to the triggering stimulus which will result in fear/anxiety responses. The only time that you want your dog exposed to this, during the process, is when you have set up a controlled rehabilitation scenario, or are in control of the situation.

You are working on changing your dog’s feelings (or emotional response) in certain situations and exposing your dog to those same scenarios in which he gets “over the edge” will only set you backward in your process.

Is it possible to avoid everything?

No, it probably isn’t. No matter how good your plans are and how good of an organized environment scheme you have made, you may still end up running into problems unexpectedly. For example, if you are dealing with your dog’s fearful aggressive response to other dogs, you may find yourself in a situation where you are passing near a parking lot and someone just took their dog out of the car right in front of you, or you are passing in front of a building and someone is just exiting the building and suddenly your dog is simply too close to that stimulus and his reaction is inevitable.

Once this happens there is nothing much that you can do, no yelling, treats, praising or whatever you do will help or change his response, it is too late. When that moment happens, your dog gets under the influence of adrenalin and other body chemicals and his brain sort of “locks”.

The best thing that you can do, at these times, is to physically remove your dog from the scene (walk away) until you reach your safety distance, at which you can once again communicate with your dog.

Once you have regained control over your dog, end the experience on a positive note, use treats while your dog is watching the other dog leaving or engage in a game of play, and then you can go back to the environment where it happened, do a few more treats and short playful interactions. Always end with a positive experience.

It is important to take the time to do these steps and not to just leave the “crime scene” as many people do by simply leaving and not turning back or doing anything else to address the unexpected situation. The reason for this important step is that you are running the possibility of actually training your dog that the bigger the reaction that he creates the faster that you will leave the potential unpleasant situation. Your dog may learn that this is the way to deal with and resolve these conflicts, and this unwanted behavior can become a bad or uncontrollable habit.

C) Creating situations

Since the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process is a form of classical conditioning, in order for it to work, the dog needs a certain number of successful repetitions. This will be your toughest challenge as you need to create situations where your dog will be exposed to a stimulus at a certain distance for “x” number of repetitions before moving to the next level.

This is a time consuming process that may require the help of other people, other dogs, etc. This can be difficult to organize and requires a lot of patience while going through the different levels, so many people mistakenly tend to try to rush things through. If you end up rushing, you will face problems which will require taking a step or a few steps back to the last previously successful level.

TIP: There is no room for rushing in the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process we can only follow our dog’s pace. The only time at which we can change the level and advance to the next, is when our dog is actually ready to do so. How many repetitions are needed at each level? That depends on many, many factors some of which we mentioned above but mostly all dependent on the individual dog.

It is not so easy to create situations and scenarios in which you can have control over a stimulus and your dog’s reaction to it. A dog expert can help you break down certain problematic situations in order for the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process to go as smoothly as possible.

3) Find a Safety Distance

Now that you have determined the triggers, made your training plan, divided into levels that you think may work best and you have an idea of how to create situations, it is now time to find a safety distance at which to begin working.

The safety distance is considered to be a distance where your dog shows mild to no response at all to the trigger. For example: if your dog reacts to another dog at a distance of 10 meters (32ft) you need to move back and try a 20 or 30 meters distance (65ft to 98ft). You need to work at the distance where your dog won’t show the signs of nervousness.

Once you have that distance that is your Safety distance at which you will start your desensitizing and counter-conditioning process.

The best way to describe how the whole process works is detailed in the picture above. In this case, the dog is reacting to humans. In the middle of the picture there is a dog, the blue ring is the safety distance area. The red line represents the direction that the person in the left corner is moving. There are two points where this red line crosses the blue ring. The entrance point and the exit point.

The gray area actually represents the level, the distance at which the trigger (in this case the person) penetrates the dog’s safe zone. As your dog becomes more comfortable, this gray area will expand.

This is what desensitizing and counter-conditioning are all about. You don’t have to remain in one spot, and one environment, as long as you stick to the same principles.

One criterion at a time

As with any other type of dog training, when working through the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process, you only raise and add one criterion at a time. It is pointless, for example, to try working on a dog’s fear of people in a place where the dog is already overwhelmed with stress from the unknown or uncomfortable environment.

Working on two or more criteria at the same time is impossible as it would be overwhelming for the dog and may slow down the process even more. The more things that you are trying to add at the same time, the slower and more demanding, if not impossible, the whole process will be.

The environment plays a huge role in desensitizing and counter-conditioning. For example, your dog may react to a human presence in a familiar place at a distance of 10 metres (32ft), but if you expose the same dog in an open area and a human figure where that person is the only “object” in that area, the dog may respond to the trigger at a much greater distance.

Desensitizing and counter-conditioning is in a way, a type of dog training technique, and the same rule applies for every type of dog training it is always best to start in a familiar environment and then move on from there.

Calming signals

Too often we forget that we are part of a team with our dog and we are an equally important link in our dog’s behaviors. Dogs react to our energy and body signals more than we are even consciously aware of. How many times does it happen that an experienced handler and a superbly trained dog fail on the day of competition, just because of a glitch in their communication?

Even though we all think that “down” means the down command, to our dog it is more in the way that the command is delivered than the word itself. Knowing this will help us through the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process when you are dealing with your dog’s behavior problems.

The fact is that no one likes or feels comfortable when their dog starts to act up. Most people either react overwhelmed, emitting a lower type of energy, sending the “oh no, here we go again” attitude, or they get excited, frustrated and almost angry in the hopes of controlling or containing the situation, but it becomes impossible to stay focused and controlled. No one is immune, but how we react in those moments is what counts, as that is the message that you are sending to your dog.

Staying calm is imperative at those times. You are the one who will help your dog in dealing with his behavior problems, no matter if you go down or up emotionally, the fact that you changed your behavior is a flag to your dog that something is wrong and that he should respond to the situation. Removing your energy from the equation will help him calm down sooner.

You can also train your dog to stay calm. Now these training techniques work for some dogs, and not for all, but even if you make the slightest progress, it can help you and your dog in the future. The secret here is to reinforce the calming behaviors when your dog is offering them throughout normal everyday situations.

It may be difficult for some, to use the clicker or marker training techniques when trying to capture calm behaviors, as this technique will often spark the dog’s excitement to work, which will defy the purpose of marking your dog’s calm state. To avoid this you can simply give him a treat unexpectedly when your dog is in this calm state and then move on, without marking it verbally.

Another option is pairing a certain verbal signal (verbal cue) with the relaxed state. For example, praising your dog in a slow, calm and relaxing manner while he lies calmly next to you. Later, you can use this verbal signal during situations to help your dog calm down.

Don’t expect magic to happen. The purpose of this is to send your dog contradictory signals to his reaction in a certain situation. Your dog will calm down faster if he can see that you are “practicing” calmness.

There are many other ways that you can try to understand dog calming signals and how to help your dog calm down. If you are interested in this subject I can recommend a couple of dog trainers and experts who have made huge advances in this field. They are Turid Rugaas (from Norway) and Emma Parsons you can find a lot of material both online and through published books, by these two experts, that may help you in creating a better communication with your dog.

Desensitizing and Counter-Conditioning: A Helpful Tool

Desensitizing and counter-conditioning is a process that every dog owner should become familiar with, as every dog has issues at some point in his life with something. This process is a great tool and is often the easiest way for your dog, in helping him overcome these issues.


Watch the video: How to stop Dog Aggression quickly And easily - In a few steps! (July 2021).