What is Counter Conditioning and How Does It Work?

Counter conditioning is a process by which we work to change our dog’s conditioned emotional response (CER) to a stimulus or situation.  For example, if a dog freezes at the sight of a moving vehicle, his conditioned emotional response is fear. Freezing is the resulting behavior.  At the sight of an oncoming dog, many others display behaviors indicative of an increase in arousal level.  This CER may be fear-based or unmodulated excitement.  Behavior improvements come about with a program of counter conditioning, working within an individual dog’s thresholds of duration, distance, and intensity.  This approach addresses the cause of the behavior rather than repressing it through punishment.  When we determine the emotions behind our dogs’ problem behaviors, then we are truly moving to resolve them. Transformations occur which means a better life for us and our dogs.

Counter conditioning is achieved using a collection of positive reinforcement tools and techniques.  Protocols are set up in a way that the dog CAN display calm and desirable behaviors in the presence of a disturbing stimulus/situation.  Behaviors that we want to reinforce.  Here are preliminary considerations:

  • Identify triggers and the frequency/intensity of behavioral responses.
  • Set up a management plan to prevent continued rehearsal.
  • Observe the earliest hints of discomfort in the presence of the troublesome situation.
  • Determine your dog’s thresholds of duration and distance where he can no longer tolerate the stimulus.
  • Be prepared to give your dog agency – choice and control.  Avoid forcing him to confront what he doesn’t like or have skills to cope with yet.
  • Work SLOWLY, always listening to what your dog is telling you and respecting his preferences. 
  • Connection, cooperation, and patience are the keys to successful counter conditioning. Behavior performance is not always on our timetable. 

Applications for counter conditioning work range from greeting new people, to sharing home space with another animal, to coping with the commotion of family gatherings.  Successful outcomes happen when we “see” what our dogs are communicating and learn to effectively engage in that “conversation” to support them through the rough patches.