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

Rule #4: Don’t Ask Your Dog to Do Anything When Scary Thing A Shows Up

He doesn’t have to sit, look at you, or lie down. All he has to do is notice Thing A. The point in counterconditioning isn’t to teach your dog any particular behavior; it’s to teach him that Thing A is wonderful.

Rule #5: Manage Situations

Make sure that when your dog notices Thing A, she isn’t close enough or stressed enough to panic or blow up. She should be at a point where she is just aware of Thing A – looking at it, maybe pointing her ears at it, but not growling, barking, backing away, or otherwise acting distressed.

One reason to present Thing A in a very mild form at first is that it makes the process smoother. Get Dogalini butt-wiggling at the sight of garbage cans at 30 feet, and you can work your way closer and closer gradually with less stress on both of you. The second and more critical reason is that if your dog is overwhelmed with fear or the urge to lash out, he simply can’t learn.

Suppose he’s growling softly, though, or shrinking back a bit in anxiety, keep that chicken coming. You will not be rewarding aggression or fear. Many people, trainers included, find the following hard to believe, but it’s true: Even if your dog aggresses or cowers when he sees Thing A, proper counterconditioning will change his emotions and thereby change his behavior for the better.

For proof, watch this video of Dr. Sophia Yin working with Homer, a terrier who aggressed when people blew in his face. In the video, Dr. Yin blows in Homer’s face and then immediately rains treats on him, even though Homer is growling. As you’ll see, Homer soon loses the aggression in favor of getting happy about how face-blowing predicts treats.


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).