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Counter Conditioning

When dealing with modifying a dog’s behavior one of the most utilized method in a training plan is that of counterconditioningCounterconditioning is the act of changings a dog’s response to a stimulus from a negative response and turning it into a positive response.

Utilizing counterconditioning properly can make dogs go from being highly reactive to certain noises, people, or other dogs, to them looking forward to rewards when placed in the presence of the stimuli.

The concept of counterconditioning is to reward the dog in the presence of the stimuli that the dog does not like so that the dog then enjoys the presence of that stimuli. This is the basic concepts of counterconditioning however there are many different factors that play a role and need to be taken into consideration.

People who attempt to utilize counter condition in their training and do not know the proper steps to take will not make any progress with their dog and may even make the situation worse than it already is. That is why it is important to fully understand the concepts that take place when using counterconditioning in your training.

“If a reward is offered before the presence of the stimuli the dog will soon learn to anticipate the stimuli when the reward is presented.”

In order to fully understand counterconditioning, we need to understand the intended goal of it and how it differs from other training theories. As stated before, counterconditioning is the process of turning a negative association into a positive association.

This is different from desensitization which is getting a dog to neither have a positive or negative association with a given stimuli. Oftentimes desensitization plays an important role in counterconditioning as a dog may need to learn to ignore a stimulus before positive associations can be made.

Typically, desensitization is done with young puppies or dogs that have not developed a negative association to their surrounding environment. Counterconditioning utilizes classical conditioning in order to achieve the desired results of changing the dog’s perspective of a stimuli.

Whenever the stimulus is presented to the dog a reward can be given which will then condition the dog to look forward to seeing that stimulus.

An example would be a dog who dislikes fireworks, every time the fireworks go off a reward is given to the dog, soon the dog learns that the noise means that a reward is going to appear.

It is highly important to be aware of the law of effect and the timing of rewards when doing counterconditioning exercises. If a reward is offered before the presence of the stimuli the dog will soon learn to anticipate the stimuli when the reward is presented.

This can be detrimental as they dog may begin to refuse rewards as it may see taking the reward as what is causing the appearance of the negative stimuli.

“It is important to watch for the dog’s behavior, to include physical behavior in the form of body language, in order to determine if the dog is reacting to the stimuli. “

When counterconditioning a dog it is very important to understand thresholds and utilize them as well as watch the dog’s behavior.

If a dog is presented with the stimuli and starts a bad behavior such as growling or barking, they are what is known as being over threshold and rewarding them at that moment will not help to counter condition them. In this case it would be rewarding their active behavior of barking and growling which will only make it harder to successfully counter condition the dog to the stimuli in future interactions.

The same goes for a dog that shakes out of fear, when rewards are given, even in the form of comforting the dog, the counterconditioning will fail and the dog could learn to go into a state of learned helplessness.

It is important to watch for the dog’s behavior, to include physical behavior in the form of body language, in order to determine if the dog is reacting to the stimuli. If the reward is given when the dog displays a certain behavior the dog will believe that the behavior that they are exhibiting is what is creating the reward rather than the appearance of the stimuli.

When this is done then counterconditioning becomes ineffective when training your dog.

This is a common mistake that many owners make when trying to counter condition their dogs behaviors, sadly this still leaves the dog with a negative association to the stimuli and also reinforces a bad behavior that the dog will likely continue in future interactions with that stimuli.

Counterconditioning can be a dog owner’s best training approach when dealing with a multitude of different behavioral problems, however its use is not quite as simple as many people would think.

There is a very fine process that must be followed and some important details that need to be taken into consideration when trying to counter condition a dog’s behavior.

If done incorrectly attempts at trying to counter condition a dog will lead to vary little progress or may lead to the situation becoming much worse than it already is.

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