Counter Conditioning for Fears; What do You Know?

Helping Your Dog with Fears thanks Second Hand Barking for the Photo

How many of you know about counter conditioning?

This by the way is NOT teaching your dog to jump on the counters.  Thanks to agility my dog does this already.

Counterconditioning is the conditioning of an unwanted behavior or response to a stimulus into a wanted behavior or response by the association of positive actions with the stimulus.  As defined by Wikipedia. .

I wrote an article on Dog Aggression and Fear the other day

And someone asked me specifically why I didn’t talk about “counter conditioning”, when the truth is that I really kind of did.

Desensitization, obedience (and giving him something else to do and think about like eye contact and focus or sit ups for more on that click here) and counter conditioning are all kind of the same thing as it takes all of them to have success.  Counter conditioning comes with a high rate of reward changing the person or dog’s idea about something that once bought them fear to something that they can put up with or even enjoy.

BUT, I also realize that I left a lot out.

You see in order to write good articles (most of the time I hope they are good), I have to explain or at least point you in the direction of a detailed explanation to the best of my ability but I can’t cover EVERYTHING in one article.  It’d be too long, it would scare you when you opened it and it would never get read by anyone.

So, I strive to explain the best but write more “series” of articles that talk about different aspects of the same thing.

So in that article I was talking more about what FEAR looks like in a dog.  For that article click here.

Now let’s talk about using desensitization, obedience and counter conditioning and how this all plays together.


Thanks Vetsnow for the Photo

Thanks Vetsnow for the Photo

In psychology desensitization is defined as the diminished emotional responsiveness to a negative or aversive stimulus after repeated exposure to it at a distance where the stimulus can be tolerated.  It is meant to deal with unrealistic phobias and anxieties.  For more click here


While talking about cues obedience is key while working on dog phobias.

Obedience is a coping mechanism for dogs.  Like squeezing a ball, meditating, or repeating phrases (things people do to regain their calmness) obedience and being able to be successful when their owner gives a command gives dogs coping mechanisms.

Counter Conditioning

See the description above.

The Triad Your Dog Needs

Your dog needs ALL of these things!

I can’t sit your dog down on a sofa, make him lay upside down and make him tell me all about his phobias and his dreams.  Teaching him to trust me and giving him coping mechanisms (also known as obedience for dogs) is what makes him comfortable, in lieu of psychoanalysis.

He also needs you to slowly desensitize him to his trigger or his fear (key word SLOWLY) while using counter conditioning.

Human Terms

fear_2275966bLet’s talk about this in human terms.  I think sometimes people understand better if they can see it from another angle.

So I’m going to say my phobia is flying.  I’m terrified of airports or anything airplane related, but I Bill Gates gave is giving me several million dollars to fly so I want to once and for all get over my fear.

I go and see a psycho therapist or a psychiatrist (a psychiatrist can help prescribe me anti anxiety meds if he/she feels my phobia is extreme… much like a Veterinary Behaviorist can prescribe anti-anxiety meds if he/she is working with your dog).

I have my first visit.  My psychiatrist thinks that an anti-depression and one xanex will help as we progress through desensitization together.

First we begin talking about the “kind” of people that go to airports and this makes me slightly anxious but doesn’t throw me into the pains of panic.

After a few more sessions we talk about airports and begin talking of cartoon airplanes (much less scary).

My psychiatrist sets up a meeting to have me meet the nicest pilot he knows (a friend) who isn’t in his pilot gear but we briefly talk about his job as he tells me how enjoyable he finds his job.

Finally we begin imagining airplanes, then short durations of looking at photos of parked airplanes, then photos of airplanes in flight.

Occasionally I need to use a xanex to my advantage if the stress level gets high, but because we are working so slowly, I am able to maintain my composure.

If I get scared, my therapist recognizes it and he begins to get me to tell him stories of my favorite hobby, horseback riding.  Often he makes me close my eyes and describe the feel of my horse, the smell of my horse, and how the brush feels in his mane and fur.  This helps me to go from a scary topic to one I love and teaches me some meditation and coping techniques to calm myself.

Eventually we drive past the airport, park in the parking lot together, and finally enter.

I work at my own pace, if I need to go home because I am overwhelmed with fear… I do, no big deal.  My therapist doesn’t force me to do anything I don’t want, but encourages me to push myself.

For a job well done and for overcoming some of those bigger tasks my psychiatrist gives me $10,000 (I never know exactly when it is coming).  Sometimes he gives me a $1,000 and sometimes he just sings my praises.

We set the final goal to fly for an hour one way, spend the night at a 5 star spa, meet up with Bill Gates for 5 million dollars and fly home the next day.

Because we have worked so slowly, he has given me the options of meditation, taught me coping skills, meditation, and medication and the payoff of 5 million dollars is so exciting; I am highly successful.

A few more trips for $5 million dollars and I am sincerely looking forward to airports and airplanes, all the people and the flying!

Seems like a lot of steps right?  Unless you are a psychiatrist you probably think so and if you are a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, therapist, counselor etc I am sure you can see I’ve probably left out a few steps.

But for the sake of the article we will say I did a pretty good job working slowly through my fear before being thrown on a plane.

Your Dog

Let’s say your dog is afraid of other dogs.buzzfeed

Well, I can’t sit him on the sofa and talk to him about how unrealistic that is; instead I must first give him coping skills.

I use touch to teach my dogs to relax, during times of stress; for more on that click here.

I want to be able to reach down and circularly massage the tip of my dog’s ear to help being him back to a meditative state so he can begin to relax his body (not talk or mention of his trigger (dogs)

I also want him to have the coping mechanisms to deal with his threats.  To sit when I say sit to down when I say down and to give me eye contact and focus when I tell him too and with all of these commands comes that reward (a great treat or as found in the earlier part of the article the $1,000)  These coping skills give him goals and help him muddle through with good behavior where before he might have chosen to lunge and bark.

So by using treats and toys eventually when we counter condition him that with his trigger (other dogs) also comes the opportunity to play a special game with me his owner or to eat a fantastic treat.  Let’s face it your dog doesn’t care about $1,000 but he does care about playing his favorite game!!!!  Games make life worth living for dogs.

So now that I have taught him coping mechanisms (obedience) and with those comes great reward ($1,000 vs a game) I can begin to desensitize him.

I might use the old 13 year old dog down the street who barks but is safely contained and harmless as a training opportunity.

We would start far and work our way up.  I would reward him with toys, treats and games for a job well done.  And, we would back up if for whatever reason he showed fear or discomfort. Remember we are not always as emotionally strong, if you dog waivers get him out of there and let him have his space without pushing.

IF things are going well, push and let your dog succeed while always ending on a good note.

And, you have to work slowly.  You can’t bribe your dog with $5 million dollars… he doesn’t understand the concept.  You have to find his motivator and his toy and use games to make it fun THAT is his payoff and his $5 million dollars.

If you traumatize him or allow him to have a melt down, you will be back to square one; so work slowly and don’t set grandiose goals.  Celebrate small steps toward your goals.

Imagine, while I was going through therapy if I was simply to close my eyes and think about an animated plane; but instead I when my eyes were opened I were to see an airplane crash or even an airplane in flight.  I might not be ready for those images and pushing too soon too hard might take me WEEKS or MONTHS back in the progress.  Or I would never go back because they had lost my trust.

Be kind, use all of your skills and help your dog work through the things that bother him so that you can build his confidence.  Confidence and trust is key in dog training!

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One Comment

  1. Anna Tribble says:

    Gandalf, my 2 yr old standard poodle, runs from any loud noise like a pan or anything being dropped. He is fearful of his back towards his tail and his tail being touched. Clipping his toes and cleaning his ears is a severely traumatic event for all. He was 4 mos old when we got him. It’s like he’s my shadow and learns quickly except for these areas. Is fine around other dogs (for small dogs he sit/downs to allow sniffing). He’s great around the children and strangers (all but one so far). He’ll bark, approach slowy when told OK, sniff, then just wants petted.


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