Canine behavior consultants rely heavily on a procedure called counterconditioning. Implemented correctly, counterconditioning can successfully change a dog’s emotional and behavioral responses to a specific stimulus (situation, object, person, etc.) from fear, avoidance, or aggression to a positive association. It is a powerful and effective technique that we often recommend to clients with reactivity or aggression issues.
Counterconditioning is not a reaction to the dog’s behavior; instead, you are controlling the environment and pairing positive activities (eating favorite treats, being pet, or playing with toys) with the “trigger” that causes the dog to react.
When pairing positive activities with the trigger, it should be done at a distance that does not elicit an unwanted response (such as barking, lunging, etc.) Gradually, the dog is exposed closer and closer to the trigger while enjoying eating treats, getting a good scratch, or playing with a toy.
Although physical contact, a soothing voice, and toys can be used in the counterconditioning procedure, we recommend using food, as it is the most salient reward and has by far the most scientific study and literature to demonstrate its effectiveness. Many dogs can overcome their fear, aggression, or reactivity through using high-value food rewards (hotdog pieces, small bits of cheese, or dog treats); more difficult dogs may require that the dog’s main diet (kibble) is used for the procedure.
Remember that counterconditioning is a gradual process, as are all positive training techniques. Keep sight of your goals and realize that the slow-and-steady positive approach is vastly superior to quick-fix aversive techniques.
Don’t be afraid that you are “rewarding” unwanted behavior by pairing barking, lunging, whining with a food item. It is often counterintuitive to humans, but the research shows that it is not possible to increase fear, aggression, reactive, or phobic behaviors through pairing these behaviors with food. In other words, if your dog lunges aggressively at another dog in the distance and you give them a bite of their favorite treat immediately afterwards, your dog will not learn to bark at other dogs more; instead, the dog will begin associating other dogs with the treats. The more consistent you are, and the better you are at gradually exposing your dog to a trigger under controlled circumstances, the faster you will see a positive behavioral change.
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