What is counter conditioning?

counter conditioning.jpgCounter conditioning is my favourite strategy (among my other favourites (I’m addicted to science) strategies) for building confidence by exposing dogs to their triggers from safe distance.

Counter conditioning is when you are teaching your dog to associate something not so pleasant with something pleasant. For example, the sound of the doorbell MUST predict a treat or playing with toys (something that your dog absolutely LOVES).  Reinforcement must be something that your dog is absolutely crazy about and that is what you will use for positive pairing. You will reinforce for IMMEDIATELY AFTER the dog has spotted the trigger, as the trigger is coming closer, and after the trigger is leaving. As soon as the trigger leaves you are also stopping the treats. As I say to all my clients – your dog doesn’t have to sit or stay or lie down. As long as he or she learns that scary thing is not scary and is paired with something positive your job is accomplished. If your dog sits naturally as the not so great thing is happening, that’s GREAT! But it is NOT a requirement as you are teaching your dog self – regulation and not other skills currently. Make sure that your dog is aware of the scary thing but not stressed. If your dog is barking, growling, jumping then you are too close and need to get to safer distance and start with counter conditioning. 

Things to keep in mind:
1. Start at a safe distance where your dogs feels safe at and sees the trigger
2. If your dog reacts, that means he or she is close to the trigger, you might be too slow with spotting the trigger or giving high value treats
3. Have extremely high value treats.
4. Body language: Be aware of your own body language and how that can influence your dog. For example, if you spot the trigger first, do you pull on the leash and alert your dog of the trigger? Are there any key words that you say when the trigger has been spotted to alert your dog? Watch your dog’s body language. Does your dog start to fixate on the trigger? Does your dog’s body language become stiff? Pay attention to ears, their snout and the direction they are staring. Watch their tail. Your dog will tell you if he is uncomfortable
5.  Don’t over do it with training. Start with short amount of time/short distance and slowly increase time and duration. End your training session on positive note.
6. Think of strategies that can help you stay calm in situations. What works for me is taking a deep breath before I go outside or saying positive affirmations. We are all different and different strategies will work for you.
7. If your dog reacts, get your dog safely away from the trigger and start exposure to triggers from a greater distance.
8. Position yourself in between your dog and the trigger. Your dog will feel safer that way when practicing counter conditioning.
9. Do not punish your dog for reacting. Please understand that the environment for your dog is scary and punishing already. These tools are to build confidence in your dog and to teach your dog to tolerate triggers to enjoy being outside.
10. Mentally stimulate your dogs prior to going outside. For example, food toys, hide food indoors for them to work on their sniffing.

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