Using Food to Change Fear-based Behaviors

When dogs are fearful of a certain stimulus, their behaviors in the presence of that stimulus are driven by fear.  With repeated exposure, fear-based behaviors become conditioned emotional responses (CER).  Fear based behaviors develop into a pattern, because they come to “work” for the dog.  Using food to reinforce incompatible behaviors is the most effective and humane way to make this change. 

Counter Conditioning

In a counter conditioning program, the goal is to change the dog’s emotional state in the presence of a scary stimulus.  For example, a dog who is afraid of people approaching him may bark and back up.  Successful counter conditioning would change the dog’s CER from one of fear to one of pleasant anticipation. 

Through an extended series of careful criteria setting, reinforcement schedules, and exposure, the dog can exhibit different behaviors in the presence of the scary stimulus. These alternative behaviors must be reinforced in a meaningful way in order to advance the program and for the new behaviors to really stick.

Behavior Reinforcement

Any effective behavior reinforcement must be meaningful to the dog in that moment. Food is a primary motivator and has been a reliable way to change CER is a variety of species, including ourselves.  (Having a bad day?  Eat some ice cream.  You will feel better.)   Using threshold criteria, set your dog up to display a desirable behavior and give him a bite of chicken to reinforce it.   

As tempting as it may be to reinforce with petting or verbal praise, use high value food.  There are many formal studies that show a low incidence of behavior repetition when petting and verbal praise are offered as reinforcements.  Haul out the good stuff for this!

Program Progression

A counter conditioning program to change CER and the resulting behaviors can take months.  Much depends on the care the handler takes to always work within the dog’s thresholds, the intensity of the behavior, and the longevity of practice, among other factors.  One indicator of progress is the dog’s calm attention to the scary stimulus, followed by a check in with his handler.  The dog is learning that the presence of that stimulus predicts something pleasant rather than a scary encounter.

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2019 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC