The ASPCA defines counter conditioning as “re-teaching the pet to have a pleasant feeling and reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked.” Counter conditioning is VERY valuable in training, especially with fearful dogs. Here’s how it works:
1. Identify what your dog is fearful of (men in hats, skateboards, large brown dogs, and so on)
2. Get yummy treats (cheese, chicken, steak, something special).
3. Expose your dog to their fear in a controlled environment (ask a friend to help or do training at class). If not, then go somewhere your dog can see/experience the fearful event at a very safe and far distance.
4. Make sure you expose them at a far distance. If you were fearful of snakes would you want a snake thrown on you? NO! You would start seeing it at a distance first. You need to figure out what your dog’s threshold is. Do they get scared of a dog 50 feet away? 20 feet? 10 feet? When does your dog go from being confident to being worried to completely losing it (barking, snarling, hiding)? You want to find the point when your dog is a little worried, but not losing it.
5. When you have your distance, give your pup those yummy treats when she/he sees that scary thing. Don’t give it to them when the scary thing is gone, only when it’s there. You want your pup to associate the GOOD TREAT with something scary-this way your dog will come to have a neutral or positive reaction towards it. Example: You work on looking at dogs at a distance. Your dog gets nervous 30 feet away. You bring your dog to a park and see a dog 30 feet away. Your dog looks at the dog, you click (use a clicker or a word to signal food), then deliver the treat. You work on this for days, weeks, or even months depending on how well your dog does. Eventually your dog sees a dog and looks up at you-YAY! Your dog EXPECTS GOOD THINGS when they see other dogs!
6. Once your dog is okay at a certain distance, get closer. So now we move to 25ft away instead of 30. We work on this the same way with treats until the dog expects treats at this level and doesn’t show signs of being overly nervous.
7. Continue until you get closer. Not all dogs are meant to get super close to other dogs or what they fear. Don’t push the dog TOO MUCH. Take baby steps & think of what your dog needs. Does your dog NEED to be close to other dogs all the time? Does your dog need to greet dogs? I know my dog was attacked by another dog and isn’t comfortable playing or greeting other dogs. Has she greeted them since the attack and through training? Yes she has, however, I don’t feel the need to push her anymore-She’s okay with them being 10ft + away, and that works for both of us.
Counter conditioning allows your dog to associate something scary with something good. This turns something horrifying into something yummy and fun. When Oreo finds something scary she knows where to look-at me for yummy treats and we keep moving on our walks.