Whether your dog fears garbage cans, barks at men with beards, or growls and lunges when someone blows in his face, counterconditioning is a good way to change your dog’s behavior.
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Suppose your dog tries to drag you across the street to get away from that scary garbage can your neighbor left out for pickup. Or suppose she barks every time she sees a man with a beard. Or (wild card) suppose he snarls and lunges when someone blows in his face. A competent behavior specialist will tailor the details of her program to your dog, but it’s a good bet that with all these problems she’ll use the technique called “counterconditioning.”
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What Is “Conditioning?”
First, some painless science. In learning-theory-speak, when you “condition” Thing A, you’re teaching an animal or a person to associate it with something else. Thing A predicts Thing B. Your dog gets excited when he hears your car pull into the driveway (Thing A) because he’s learned that the engine’s sound reliably predicts your showing up (Thing B). He wags his tail wildly when you pick up his leash, because the leash (Thing A) predicts a walk (Thing B). If you clicker train your dog, she learns that the sound of the click predicts a treat is coming. And so on.
In all those cases, Thing A started out emotionally neutral. Car engine – meh. Six-foot strip of cotton or leather – yawn-o-rama. Weird clicking sound – who cares? But because the car engine, the leash, and the clicker reliably predict wonderful things for your dog, the car engine, the leash, and the clicker become wonderful to her, too.
When Your Dog Already Dislikes or Fears Something
Suppose your dog already dislikes or fears Thing A. That bad feeling might be learned – maybe a garbage can blew over on Dogalini when she was young. It might arise because your dog wasn’t appropriately socialized in puppyhood and now defaults to being afraid of new things or hostile to them.