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.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #138

The cause doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Thing A upsets your dog, and you want to help. In this case, counterconditioning is your strategy of choice. It enables your dog to change a bad association to a good one.

The principle is the same as with plain old conditioning: You make sure that Thing A predicts Thing B, and that Thing B is something wonderful. As simple as this sounds, though, you have to follow 7 rules for it to work well. Here they are.

Rule #1: Scary Thing A Must Predict Wonderful Thing B, Not the Other Way Around

Your dog learns one lesson if every time a man with a beard shows up, she gets some pieces of roast chicken to eat. She learns something different if every time you get out the roast chicken, men with beards show up. If your dog is afraid enough of men with beards, and if roast chicken reliably predicts the appearance of men with beards, you can teach her to be afraid of roast chicken. No joke.

To avoid this problem, have the roast chicken hanging around well before the beard shows up. The roast chicken becomes part of the backdrop – until Mr. Natural walks by, and then the chicken appears in front of your dog’s face.

Rule #2: “Predict” Means “In the Next Instant,” Not “Two Minutes Later.” 

Watch for your dog to spot that garbage can. Get the chicken to her mouth within a second or two. The longer the delay, the harder it is for your dog to connect the sight of a garbage can with the arrival of chicken.

Rule #3: “Roast Chicken” Means “Something Your Dog is Crazy About and Rarely or Never Gets Otherwise.”

The more unusual your Wonderful Thing B is, the easier it will be for Zippy to learn that Scary Thing A is special and therefore not to be feared, but rather welcomed.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).