Counter-conditioning is the “fancy” name that dog trainers use when conditioning or changing an unwanted response into a wanted response by associating good things with what the dog experiences. Most dog owners inadvertently use conditioning with their dogs during day to day life without actually realising what they are doing. Once you understand the concept of conditioning it is really easy to apply counter-conditioning to everyday experiences that your dog has.
When you first bring your puppy home, objects such as the car keys, a dog lead and a tennis ball mean absolutely nothing to them. However, over time your dog learns that the jingle of car keys mean going for a car ride, picking up a dog lead means going for a walk and throwing a tennis ball means a game of fetch, therefore it becomes conditioned to know that these sounds and objects all predict that good things are going to happen. My dogs even learned the difference between me picking up the car keys when I was going to work and when it was a weekend!
Most dogs have things that they don’t like. For example, my youngest border collie, Fizz, used to get really scared when she heard a car coming down the road. Dogs get worried about things for a variety of reasons. They may have had a bad experience, perhaps they didn’t get socialised with that particular thing as youngsters or they may just have a sensitive/fearful personality. The cause itself doesn’t really matter. All you need to know is that you can use counter-conditioning to change the dog’s current bad association that it has with the object or situation to a good association, just like the good response the dog has when it hears the car keys or sees you grab the lead.
Your job is to teach your dog that the thing that it is scared of predicts something wonderful happening. In most cases, using food is the best option. It is important that the food you use is something that the dog loves and wants really badly; ideally something that it rarely gets so that it becomes super special. For example, when Fizz was frightened of cars going past us when we were out for a walk I did two things in preparation. Firstly I loaded my pockets with roast chicken and the other was to keep her on lead so I could control her reaction. Without a lead on she was so frightened she would run away. So I needed to make sure that couldn’t happen.
Fizz needed to learn that every time she heard a car coming she got roast chicken to eat. This required me to be very vigilant and to be prepared the second I heard a car coming, no matter how far in the distance. The food continued until the car went past. Waiting to start feeding her until the car has already gone by is too late! Timing is very important.
Never ask your dog to do anything when you are working on counter-conditioning. It doesn’t matter if your dog is sitting, standing or focusing on you. All you need to worry about is getting that food into your dog just before the thing they are worried about happens.
Keep your distance. If you go to give your dog its favourite food in the world and it won’t take it, it means that you are too close to the scary thing. If this is the case create distance. If it’s barking and lunging at the thing it is worried about but will still taking food then that is fine. Once you start feeding the dog, it will stop barking in order to eat the food. Do not be concerned that you are rewarding the barking, the food actually works to change a dogs emotional response which will reduce the barking over time.
Once the car has gone past I then stop feeding Fizz. I want her to make the connection between the car and the yummy food so I’m careful to make sure that food appears, car goes past, food stops. It took a couple of months of patience and lots of yummy rewards for Fizz but I now have a dog who no longer fears approaching cars.
Karen Phillips is the owner and trainer of Riot, the beautiful Border Collie that is the Better Pets and Gardens mascot. Karen has had immense experience and success with her dogs, all border collies except for Cassie, the very fast papillon, and is currently involved as a trainer with the Agility Club of WA. Karen is also a regular expert on our Facebook page.