The Problem With Counter Conditioning

Classes Didn’t Help My Dog
August 19, 2018

The Problem With Counter Conditioning

Counter conditioning is a very effective training technique, which is often referred to and applied by animal trainers and is utilised to some degree in nearly all training programs. Counter conditioning is most commonly recommended as a technique to assist with fear issues relating to objects, environments and animals (humans included).

Counter conditioning is defined as the extinction of an undesirable response to a stimulus through the introduction of a more desirable, often incompatible response. For example, a dog that is scared of plastic bags would be fed in the presence of a plastic bag. This results in the dog associating plastic bags with something more positive, and decreases the fear response.

Basically, food = dopamine = feel good = less scary

So what’s the problem with counter conditioning?

All counter conditioning programs need structure and a methodical approach to reach a goal behaviour. At the core of this approach is structured and gradual exposure to the stimulus that causes the fear to the dog. This is achievable where the dog ‘s fear is of an object or specific environment, as both these triggers are for the most part predictable and able to be controlled, thereby allowing us to control how much exposure the dog has to this stimulus in the session.

However, when dealing with fear based issues relating to another animal, we are now dealing with a living, moving creature that is unpredictable. On top of that, we also need access to these animals for the purpose of the counter conditioning process, and herein lies the bigger issue – how do your counter condition a dog who has fear issues with other dogs, if you don’t have access to a variety of other dogs?


Photo credits: Jane Cowan ABC

For counter conditioning programs to work you need to be training multiple times a week in a controlled environment with the stimulus present. Most of us don’t have other (or suitable) dogs we can bring out at times we need them there. Some trainers suggest working on the outside of a dog park, however the danger there is you are still dealing with dogs rushing the fences periodically which is less than ideal. You can very easily take three steps backwards if you over expose a dog, especially in the early stages of training.

As part of the daily routine with the elephants at the zoo, we used to bring families in to help bath the elephants. This was a nice experience for the public and the elephants certainly enjoyed being pampered during the bath. When we first started this program, we noticed that one of the elephants was fearful of children. We started a very structured counter conditioning program using children, getting multiple children to come in at a safe distance daily to feed the elephant. We did three sessions a day for about 3 months with great success. The elephant was extremely comfortable with children coming up and saying hello once we were done.

The reason this program worked effectively was consistency and being in a zoo environment we had access to no end of children coming through the facility. The other benefit of being in a zoo was that we completely controlled the environment. This obviously does not always translate to our every day lives. The limitations of any counterconditioning program are having access to the stimulus and controlling the environment.

So how do we get around these issues?

  1. Obedience MUST be a part of any counter conditioning program. If you don’t have effective control of your dog on lead when the stimulus isn’t present then that’s where you need to start. A solid sit will be very helpful when you are in between repetitions or if you need a safe place for your dog to be while you adjust the environment. A solid sit is also incompatible with lots of undesirable behaviour.
  1. If you are working with a trainer and they haven’t provided you with a program that’s realistic for your circumstances then chat to them about it. You need routine access to the stimulus and a structured program to follow. It MUST be realistic and achievable.
  1. At the same time, you need to do the work. There are no short cuts with these programs, the training is repetitive and can be very boring. You need to find a way to get it done everyday. You won’t get results doing one class/session a week.

There are many approaches to dealing with fear issues, and counter conditioning should be incorporated into most programs. That being said, there are always alternatives to building confidence and conquering fear. Some dogs just need more generalised exposure. Too many hours in a backyard can create a distorted view of the world. Sometimes just getting out more and having some fun can create a little more optimism and fade some of those fear responses. More obedience training, structured play sessions and skills training can make a huge difference, stimulating and challenging your dog whilst building confidence.

Dog owners aren’t operating in a controlled zoo environment and sometimes the textbook approach to counter conditioning is completely unrealistic. Once a week counter conditioning sessions are not effective. When you can train daily (even for a relatively short time) in controlled and structured sessions, you will see great gains.

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