What is the difference between desensitization and counter-conditioning?While the concepts of desensitization and counter-conditioning are often discussed as if they are the same thing, they're not. Kathy defined desensitization as lowering the intensity of a stimuli enough to enable the dog to eat or play in its presence. This basically changes the trigger from an overwhelmingly aversive stimuli into something closer to neutral. Desensitization is also about exposure only- it does not seek to change associations. Sometimes careful desensitization alone can help a dog learn that there is nothing to fear, but often, you need to add in counter-conditioning (which is about pairing the scary stimuli with something awesome) in order to achieve the results you want.
I’ve decided to start a counter-conditioning program for my reactive dog. Where should I go to do this?
One of the biggest factors that influences the success of a counter-conditioning program is the trainer’s ability to set up the environment for optimal learning. Kathy recommends scouting out a location in advance. You want to find a place where you can easily adjust the intensity of the dog’s triggers. If possible, you want to find a location where the triggers approach from only one or two directions, such as alongside a walking path. This can help prevent the dog from having to worry about what’s behind him. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find a location with “protected contact”- that is, having the trigger behind a fence or other barrier in order to ensure your everyone’s safety. Finally, there should always be an escape route available. You absolutely do not want to get stuck in a corner!
How long should my counter-conditioning sessions be?
Since conditioning does require repeated pairings, you need to get quite a few trials of see trigger-get treat in order to obtain the desired response. However, Kathy cautioned against having too many trials in a row. During a counter-conditioning session, your dog needs some downtime between pairings to relax. Ideally, your dog will alternate between feeling relaxed and a bit concerned (when he sees the trigger). He should not be feeling general nervousness when no trigger is around punctuated with periods of increased fear when the trigger appears. For that reason, Kathy recommends having 12-15 pairings over a 30 minute period of time.
My dog is afraid of men. Should I find men and ask them to feed my dog?
Although people often have the trigger person feed the dog treats, Kathy prefers not to take this approach. She said that dogs who have been treated this way learn to run to the scary person, hoping for food. Worst case scenario, if the person doesn’t have any, the dog can become frustrated, which increases the likelihood of a bite. But even in the best cases, the foodless person will inevitably touch the dog, possibly scaring him, which would be counter-productive. For that reason, Kathy really thinks it’s best for a dog to seek out his person, not strangers, when a trigger appears. And anyway- ultimately, the source of food is not as important as the timing of the food.
I want to start a counter-conditioning program, but my dog won’t take treats! What should I do?
If your dog won't eat, it's because he's stressed and you need to lower the intensity of whatever is going on around your dog. Increasing distance is the most common way to do this, but there are other options. You might start by working with just sounds (the jingling of tags, without a dog attached, for example). You can use stuffed/toy dogs for a dog who is scared of other dogs. Changing the direction that the trigger is facing can help (have that scary man face the other way). Your goal is to work at the edge of your dog’s comfort zone, wherever that might be, and to slowly make it bigger.
What should I do if my dog goes over threshold?
Get him out of the situation. A dog who has gone into the fight-or-flight mode really doesn’t have the ability to think and learn, so there’s no point in training through it. If you need to, you can use some food to lure the dog away from whatever is upsetting him. Then, take note of the situation and do your best to avoid it in the future! While you’ll still want to work on counter-conditioning him, you’ll need to work at a much lower intensity. Kathy said you should avoid exposing your dog to things he can’t handle.
But won’t that reinforce the reactive or fearful behavior?
No. The dog is in a brain state that is not conducive to learning. That said, if you repeatedly expose your dog to situations that are too intense for him, resulting in repeated reactive outbursts, you may get a dog who learns that such outbursts work to get him what he wants. This is not something you want your dog to learn, so it’s really in your best interest to prevent the outbursts in the first place, while gradually working to increase the intensity.
Doesn’t giving my dog food or comforting him when he’s scared tell him that being scared is okay?
Yes and no. You can’t reinforce a feeling, but you can facilitate it. If you are acting panicked or scared, your dog may take that as an indication that he should be upset, too. Kathy also told us about something called “limbic resonance,” which is the ability of mammals to ascertain another’s emotions by looking in their eyes. If you know that you can’t control your own feelings, Kathy recommended against teaching your dog to make eye contact with you in response to scary events. That said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with some calm, quiet petting or gentle verbal reassurances. So take a deep breath, relax, and tell him that you're going to protect him.