One of the 5 most important words in animal training: counterconditioning

I collaborate with a vet who claims that many of the dogs that visit her facility are so eager to get inside the door that they pull their owners by the leash all the way from the parking lot.

Her secret?

*drumroll*

Coun-ter-con-di-tio-ning.

Six syllables. I know, most people tune out beyond four. But I still think you should learn this particular term. Why?

Because it’s one of the most important techniques in animal training (arguably top five). It may be the difference between your dog eagerly pulling to get to the vet’s, or shaking like a leaf on the examination table.

Simply put, conditioning means learning and counter means opposite. So, re-learning might be another way of putting it. That’s just three syllables.

Practically speaking, it’s about changing someone’s learned associations. An example!

Let’s say we have a dog, who’s started trembling and panting whenever she arrives to the vet’s office.

She has probably learned to associate the vet’s office with aversive events. Strange sounds and smells. Unfamiliar people looming. Needles poking. A string of events that ends up with something painful – most animals will learn these predictors. This is one type of classical conditioning, learning that certain events predict things the animal would rather avoid (just like Pavlov’s dogs drooled when they learned that bells predicted things they really wanted). Some animals may start showing behaviours indicative of a fear response, and some even resort to defensive aggression in their attempts to escape the situation – which could be very risky for all parties involved.

Counterconditioning (CC) is about re-learning. Typically, rather than predicting pain, the animal learns that certain events predict outstanding free delicacies, delivered right under your nose.

Strange sounds and smells – but followed by fabulous treats.

Unfamiliar people looming – and then you get something that smells just wonderful!

Needles poking – is that chicken liver? (or, if you’re a cat: whaaaat – Tuna?!)

counter conditioning

CC is learning new associations, so that the animal starts looking forward to the sounds, smells, people and procedures since they precede fabulous goodies.

Studies have shown that CC may reduce the risk of defensive aggression in just a few training sessions. For example, one dog’s aggressive behaviours towards a stranger at the door (charging, lunging, barking, and biting) diminished from 88% of 30-second intervals before training to 3% after CC training.

How do you do it? Start by identifying some fabulous treat – something that the animal really likes. Then feed small mouthfuls to the animal as soon as it has been exposed to a potentially scary situation. Remember that animals are more easily frightened than people, they often react to novel stimuli or things that we can’t even perceive (smells or sounds, for instance).

Also, if they are too fearful, they won’t take treats and CC alone won’t work. What to do then? Combine it with another technique – systematic desensitization (SD): gradually introducing the scary thing. The combination of counterconditioning and systematic desensitization is called SD/CC and is potentially the most powerful tool available in reducing or eliminating fear – in people as well as in animals. More about that in another post.

Note that the procedure of creating a positive association with the veterinary visit is best done even before animals develop fears. Strictly speaking it might not even be “counter” conditioning or re-learning if the animal isn’t afraid to begin with, just “plain” classical conditioning (Pavlov’s drooling dogs again) – but such preventive learning is very powerful in buffering against later fears developing.

Take a look at dr Sophia Yin counterconditioning a dog to actually enjoying something he initially thought aversive. She discusses – and dismisses – the common assumption that giving treats to animals while or after they’re aggressive inadvertently rewards, or reinforces, the behaviour.

… On a side note, all you nerd trainers out there: which are the five most important words (or expressions) in animal training, according to YOU? Take a moment to give us your thoughts in the comment section below!

get posts on reducing fear in petsReferences:

Savage, K. E., 2010. A Comparison of Classical Counterconditioning and Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior on Aggressive Behavior in Dogs.

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