Raise your hand if you have a dog who barks, lunges and even growls when other dogs approach. Okay now, raise your hand if you’ve ever had a dog who hates having his nails trimmed. Anybody ever had a dog who was afraid of thunderstorms? Wow, that’s a lot of hands! I could raise my hand to all of these and more, so I know what you’re dealing with.

In all of these situations, your dog has an emotional response to the situation.  And it’s a negative emotion like fear or anxiety. The dog is not happy. In my experience, when a dog acts in these ways, many people react with further negativity by scolding, yanking on the leash and other acts of frustration.  Dogs are sensitive creatures and they know when we are upset. When we react negatively to our dogs’ already negative feelings, we reinforce in the dogs’ minds that they are justified in feeling fear.

Put in basic terms, your dog could be thinking, “Hmm, I get a scolding when another dog walks by so that dog makes a scolding occur. I really, really hate that dog now.”

Let’s give an example that you can probably relate to: You hate spiders. A spider crawls past you and at the very same moment, someone punches you. The next time a spider crawls past you, you get punched again. It won’t take many more repetitions to convince you that every time a spider comes into view, you’re going to get punched.  That’s how a dog feels when he gets scolded for reacting in fear or with anxiety. The fear becomes “conditioned.” Get it?

A better method for helping dogs overcome their fears is to coach the dog to feel that “good things happen” instead of bad things. That is what is meant by “counter-conditioning.” You are in essence reversing the fear conditioning.

How is it done? It’s very easy for me to describe how to use counter-conditioning methods but it is much more difficult to put it into use because it takes practice, patience and good timing. It’s best to work with a dog trainer or behavior consultant to show you the techniques.  But let’s review how to do it. Let’s use the example of a dog who reacts when he sees another dog. Before going out for a walk, load your pockets with very high value treats that your dog usually does not get to eat.  I use string cheese or canned chicken. Have the treats in an open baggie so that they are quickly accessible. The very instant you see another dog approach, begin to feed your dog. Important: do not tug or yank your dog and do not scold or say no.  You want your dog to experience only positive associations with the appearance of another dog. Continue feeding your dog the food until the other dog disappears from sight, and then discontinue the food. The food only is presented to your dog when another dog is in view because you want your dog to learn that “good things happen” when he sees other dogs. The food also serves to distract your dog and bring down the anxiety.

This technique takes a lot of practice to ensure that your timing is appropriate because if you don’t feed your dog quickly enough, he will continue to get agitated.  And so many people I’ve worked with still unconsciously yank and say no to the dog. So counter-conditioning is a lot about how the dog owner reacts too!

There are many applications for the counter-conditioning technique. Think about what causes your dog fear or anxiety and you can use it. I wrote an article called Grappling with Grooming to demonstrate how to counter-condition dogs who do not like their nail trimmed. 

Want to learn more? Dr. Patricia McConnell has a great book called The Cautious Canine.  Highly recommended!