Counterconditioning in Dogs

Spend any amount of time on social media or YouTube and you will likely hear dog trainers, behavior consultants, and even vets voicing the importance of counterconditioning to help dogs overcome their negative feelings toward various stimuli. 

(Note:  In this post, I use the word stimulus and trigger interchangeably).

At first glance, it sounds easy and straightforward.  But we like to dive into the details around here, so let’s get into counterconditioning, why it is so heavily used in the dog behavior modification field, and how to do it.

Make sure you read through to the end! I cover 5 common troubleshooting points if counterconditioning has not worked for your dog in the past. 

What is counterconditioning?

Counterconditioning is the process of changing one’s emotional response to a stimulus.  In dog behavior modification, this may look like helping a dog that is anxious and/or fearful of people learn to relax around people and even see people as a positive thing.   

And just to note, counterconditioning is going from one emotional valence to the other; it doesn’t always go from negative → positive.   The other way can happen too. Although I don’t know why you would want to do that in the realm of behavior modification.  

How to use counterconditioning with your reactive dog

Counterconditioning is often used to help dogs overcome reactivity to other dogs, people, vet visits, noises, body handling…really anything that triggers an undesirable emotional response for the dog.

The aversive stimulus is paired with something the dog finds enjoyable like treats, pets, praise, or a toy.  This might look like feeding your dog a delicious bit of jerky when someone passes by the window or giving your dog a high-value chew when you have a visitor in your home.  

The dog gets the good stuff as long as they are exposed to the stimulus.

Sounds simple enough.  But does it work?

Is counterconditioning effective for reactive dogs?

Scientific research tells us that counterconditioning is more effective than other methods (extinction, punishment) in changing an animal’s negative response.  (1) (2) 

My experience with my own dog is the same.  I used counterconditioning with Rosie to change her feelings about 2 dogs that barked from the balcony every time we walked by.  She would lunge, bark, and even jump into the air.  After following a counterconditioning plan, she now looks up to me as we approach expecting a treat and we calmly continue on our way. 

Troubleshooting Counterconditioning

If it sounds simple on paper and scientific research tells us it is effective, why do guardians tell me things like:

“My dog isn’t food-motivated enough.”

“Treats aren’t enough to distract my dog from the trigger.”

“I tried counterconditioning, but it didn’t work.”

The devil is in the details, my friends.  If you have tried counterconditioning and it didn’t work, here’s some troubleshooting points to consider:

1. How consistent is the counterconditioning? 

Let’s say you want your dog to stop lunging and barking at a barky dog behind a fence.  

You pack your treat pouch full of delicious steak and set out for your walk.  You feed your dog as soon as the other dog starts to bark.  And it seems to work – no reaction from your dog!  

You do this for a few days, but by the end of the week, you are all out of steak. You use a training treat – still enjoyable to your dog but not as delicious as the steak.   The weekend rolls around and you forget your treats entirely (life happens!) and your dog launches into a full-blown reaction as you pass by the barky dog.  

What’s going on?

If you are only offering the treat sometimes or offering a lower value treat, the contingency between the stimulus (barking dog behind the fence)  and the treat will not be strong enough to change behavior.

2.  Is the order of events correct? 

It is very important that the stimulus (trigger) predicts good things. That means the triggers must first appear and then the treats appear.  From the dog’s perspective, the trigger causes the treats to appear. 

Often, we get so anxious ourselves that we start shoving food in the dog’s face as soon as we are aware of a trigger.  But, if your dog has not observed the trigger, they will quickly learn that frantic feeding means there is something to be on the lookout for in the environment. 

3.  Are you starting with the stimulus at too high of intensity? 

Counterconditioning is often addressed in conjunction with desensitization.  And there is a good reason for that!  Desensitization is a treatment or process that diminishes emotional responsiveness to a negative, aversive or positive stimulus after repeated exposure to it.  

When done properly, desensitization is about as exciting as watching paint dry.   We expose the dog to the stimulus but at such a low intensity that the emotional response does not occur.  Then we can do counterconditioning to help form a positive association.   

If you start a desensitization session when the stimulus is at too high of an intensity, your dog is not going to be able to accept the treats being used as part of the counterconditioning process.  (See point #1 of this post).

4.  What is your dog’s comfort level?  

Distance is a common metric when working with fearful, reactive dogs.  What is the distance between the dog and the trigger?  We want to reduce that distance so that friends coming into your home or other dogs out on walks don’t have an impact.

But if you are only measuring progress by the distance your dog is from a stimulus,  you may be overlooking the most important metric of all:  your dog’s comfort level.  

When following a counterconditioning and desensitization (CC/DS) protocol, boring, uneventful training sessions are the goal. 

By keeping your dog’s comfort level in the forefront of your mind, closing the distance becomes a side effect.  

5.  What are you counterconditioning?  

If you have a dog that is noise reactive to people coming over, what is it exactly that starts your dog’s stress cycle?  Is it the sound of a car door slamming in the driveway or the doorbell ringing?  Is it the voices of the people?  Is it something else entirely like a sound or odor that we as humans cannot detect?  

In Patricia McConnell’s book,”The Other End of the Leash,” (someone correct me if I’m mistaken on the source) she talks about a dog that lunged and barked at people that came over – but only sometimes. It was so inconsistent that it remained a bit of mystery. At some point, the guardian recalled an incident when the dog was very young.  A pizza delivery driver accidentally stepped on the dog in the process of delivering the pizza, causing the dog to yelp in pain.

That single learning experience was enough for this dog to remember pizza, not people, cause pain.  

In short….

  • Counterconditioning is the process of changing your dog’s emotional response toward a stimulus.
  • It is a process that is backed up by science, proven to be effective and humane for treating reactive behavior in dogs.
  • While it sounds simple, it is nuanced.  Review the troubleshooting guide, analyze your approach, make adjustments, and try it again!

Tell me in the comments!

Did any of the troubleshooting points give you an “a-ha” moment?  What are you going to try differently in your counterconditioning protocol with your dog?



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