Five Days from Fear to Fun – Classical Counterconditioning

By Yvette Van Veen

Unlike other whims, I remembered to grab my camera.  When I blew the whistle for the first time, Karma tucked her tail and ran.

I probably should have been a bit more thoughtful in my introduction of the whistle.  However, when you have confident dogs you get accustomed to taking liberties. Sometimes, Karma bites you in the butt.

Before anyone sends me hate mail, we didn’t plan for this to happen.  We adjusted immediately.  Fear can unexpectedly happen.  I decided to share that one incident because frankly it happens to owners all the time.  It’s the clicker that scares a dog, the dropped cooking pan, the ratting of aluminum foil, fireworks or the whirl of a new kitchen appliance.  Sometimes our dogs get scared.

I thought it would be interesting to put together a time lapse of Karma’s responses as they changed over the course of five days.  It would show the change in her body language and a real time account of what we actually did.

We used classical counterconditioning.  This means that each time the whistle sounded, Karma received a really amazing goodie, mainly turkey.  There were no conditions on her behaviour.  I did reduce the volume and duration of the whistle until she grew more comfortable.  I made sure she was some distance away from me during the first few repetitions.  This made the process easier on her.

The sound of the whistle was initially aversive to her.  Aversive means that it’s something that the dog will seek to escape, avoid or postpone.  At first, you can see that Karma clearly is looking to escape from the sound of the whistle.  By pairing the sound of the whistle with goodies, her emotional response changes over time.

Just because something is aversive for a dog today, it does not mean that it cannot be changed.  Things that used to be aversive can become appetitive and vice versa.  It might have been easier to shelf the whistle recall idea entirely.  Perhaps for some dogs that is an option.  However, as Karma goes to more and more events, I know that eventually someone is going to blow on a whistle.  I do not want her to be startled and frightened if there is something I can do today.

Some people seem to think that classical counterconditioning is hard or doesn’t work. They say it takes a lot of time and effort.  While there are some basic rules to keep in mind, by following the rules, busy people – like myself – really aren’t doing that much work at all.

People fail to realize that long breaks between sessions are beneficial – perfect for the busy dog owner.  In its simplest form, you feed the presence of the trigger.  In this case whistle equals goodies.  You do need to be mindful of things that can block or overshadow the conditioning.  Otherwise, it’s really that simple.  Trigger equals treat.

One thing we did was hide a treat somewhere in the house while Karma was out in the yard.  Later, when she was back inside, I’d blow the whistle and surprise her.  This was done because I was going out of my way to ensure that the whistle predicted goodies.  Not “hand in pocket” or “open fridge door” or “standing in the kitchen.”  It really has to be the trigger that equals the food.  The cleaner you work, the faster the association will happen.

The results in the following video involved the following:

  • Five days of classical counterconditioning
  • Six reps per day approximately (only 2 on the 24th…was busy … it was Christmas eve.)
  • Ten seconds of work per repetition.


Total Training Time
Less than FIVE MINUTES.

I will probably re-visit whistles a few more times.  It pays to finish the job by generalizing the conditioning.  We could work in a variety of locations or work with different types of whistles.  Then we’ll be ready to switch back to our initial plan of a whistle recall.

Yes, I do realize that some dogs have traumatic experience in their past.  Not all problems will go away in five days.  There are dogs with global fears and there are dogs with a history of trauma and abuse.

For the most part, many dogs are just normal dogs that occasionally get scared of one thing or another.  We are the ones who are our dog’s worst enemy. We over think what needs to be done.

We become embroiled in minutia and complexities that are not relevant.  We worry that feeding a fearful dog will reinforce fear.  It doesn’t.  We wait for “good” behaviour instead of just feeding the trigger.  I clearly fed a dog that was afraid and I fed a dog that was not necessarily behaving.  Yet, the fearful response disappeared.  Sometimes it pays to let go of intuition and just trust the science.  Feed the appearance of a well defined trigger.  It works.

Additional resources:

Awesome Dogs Shareables Counterconditioning Collection

Reactive Dogs on Facebook

Fearful Dogs on Facebook

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About the Author

Yvette Van Veen PCT-A is dog behavior consultant and owner of Awesome Dogs, in Dorchester, Ontario, Canada.  She is also a long-time columnist and multiple Dog Writers Association of America award nominee, and currently writes a regular column for The Toronto Star.  She has worked with rescue dogs for more than 14 years, focusing mainly on rural, roaming and feral rescue dogs from communities throughout Ontario and Quebec, Canada.  She is also the creator of Awesome Dogs Shareables, an educational meme site providing resources and training tips in small, shareable formats.

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