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When Well-Executed Counterconditioning Plans Fail

by | Apr 20, 2016 | 1 comment

Counterconditioning is a form of respondent conditioning in which a desired stimulus (like food, or a ball) is paired with an undesired stimulus (like getting a shot).  It is often used in conjunction with desensitization to help dogs feel better about certain things in their world. 

This is not a piece of writing about how to carry out a counterconditioning and desensitization protocol. Many of my colleagues have already done so, these are just a few examples:

Talk to ten qualified trainers about their experiences using counterconditioning and desensitization (CC/D) in the field and you’ll likely get ten different responses.  But what might surprise you is how many of them will somewhat bashfully admit that these protocols fail just about as often as they succeed–if not more so.  Less-experienced but well-read trainers will scoff and assume the protocol wasn’t carried out well; that pieces were missing, steps were skipped, etc. Certainly this is the case some of the time, but what about when a well-designed expertly-executed CC/D protocol fails? Why is this happening?

Something *is* flawed. It may not the plan in the traditional sense, or the execution. It might be that our currently held information about CC/D is what is slightly off, and it might be that traditional CC/D protocols are less-capable than we thought.

Incompatible Emotions 

It is generally accepted that reinforcing behaviors that are incompatible with undesired behaviors is a humane and effective means of behavior modification. Dog jumps on people? Train dog to sit to greet guests. Dog scratches and whines at the back door? Train dog to ring a bell to be let out. What is less-often discussed is that in order for these protocols to be truly sustainable the replacement behavior must scratch the itch the dog was after in the first place.  If the incompatible behavior doesn’t fulfill the same needs the dog was meeting on his own it will not last. Perhaps then, replacing emotions with incompatible feelings (counterconditioning) is the same?

If my dog is disturbed by the sight of other dogs, does it matter if I pair this stimulus with food, toys, play, or something else? Does it matter if I pair it with an exciting event, or a calm one? A traditional CC/D protocol would say no, it just needs to be something the dog likes, and food works great.  So, dog appears, feed tripe. Dog disappears, stop feeding tripe. And so on until dog appearing=tripe.  Most competent trainers would then take that “yay, tripe!” feeling and use it as their “in” to cue an incompatible behavior (like a nose target) to get their dog away from the trigger safely and without reaction. This sounds great but rarely generalizes well and can be really difficult for skilled trainers and pet owners alike to take out of the training context and into the real world (where dogs happen to live!).  The science was right, but the oversight was using the tripe, which ignited feelings of joy and satiation (we can assume) when perhaps a more sustainable emotion (a feeling of safety) should have been sought after.  Assuming that the lovely feeling of eating a favorite food is the same as feeling safe is one of those things dog trainers do that disregards the true experience of the dogs in our care.  If you give me a hundred dollars every single time I see a spider I will have more money and enjoy my life a considerable amount, but I am willing to bet I will still not feel safe if a spider is near me. Further, any period of time where the cash flow stops and I continue seeing the 8 legged beasts, and we will be back to square one.


In my blog about high stakes scenarios and high stakes reinforcers I wrote about the importance of never asking our dogs to perform tasks outside their comfort zone for us, especially when we hold highly valued reinforcers. Often in CC/D the use of very hot stimuli overshadows the presence of the trigger.  In fact, it will appear as though great progress is being made, when the dog is actually allowing himself to be brought closer than his true comfort level allows because the ball/tripe/goat cheese/etc is so important to him.

An argument here could certainly be that taking the dog closer to the trigger than he is comfortable going is a rookie move. Yes, a novice trainer may miss subtle signs of discomfort, but the cases I am referring to are ones in which the dog doesn’t even notice the trigger until he is well past his own threshold due to the value of the counterconditioning stimulus in use.

An Operant Alternative

A different approach that I have been playing around with is one in which counterconditioning is achieved within an operant scenario with desensitization in mind.  In this scenario the dog is asked to perform a behavior (like staying on a station or performing a target) while a low level of the disliked stimulus is presented.  The dog is clicked and treated for maintaining the behavior in the presence of the stimulus and the salience of the stimulus is gradually increased.  Both counterconditioning and desensitization are achieved because the stimulus occurs just before the reinforcement and it is presented incrementally.

In this video, I am using this procedure to help Felix be more comfortable with things being dropped near him: 

And here, a similar procedure for husbandry skills:


A Non-Traditional Approach 

But what about those things our dogs are so often upset about; other dogs and unknown people? For that, I’d suggest something else entirely. (Why so many dogs are upset by these two triggers is for another blog on another day.)  I suggest simply allowing dogs to observe these triggers. For as long as they want, as far away as they need to be to be calm.  Felix, like many young intact male dogs, can become quite excited about other dogs. Here is a clip in which I allow him to watch another dog play fetch in a field at a safe distance. You can see that he soothes himself; he doesn’t need a tug toy or food to feel better about the trigger. This is two months ago, and just last weekend Felix was able to walk around an agility trial, performing behaviors for boring old kibble. He watched dogs running agility, and chose to disengage and move away rather than get upset.


One Dog’s Story 

My colleague and friend has agreed to let me use her story here, but I have changed her name and her dog’s name to protect their privacy.

A little dog named Bonnie and her human, a skilled dog trainer named Tasha had embarked on a well-designed CC/D protocol to help Bonnie overcome her fear of horses.  The plan was expertly written and carried out.  And yet, it wasn’t working.  When Tasha mentioned it to me, truly in passing after her agility lesson one afternoon, I got curious. How is it that this trainer with so much skill is having this difficulty? So I dug deeper. What I found was that Bonnie could indeed play with her ball right next to a corral full of horses, but once the ball was removed from the picture Bonnie would go back to maniacally barking and lunging at the animals.  She couldn’t get as close to the horses if food was used as the counter stimulus, but she could get quite close. Yet, when Tasha left her crated in her car to go care for her horse, Bonnie would bark, scream, and salivate from her crate where she could see the horses.

Let me be quite clear, Tasha’s skills are excellent. Bonnie wasn’t getting better, and it was not because of a lack of competency in both application or design. I have not outlined everything she did or tried here; know she exhausted what she and several other highly regarded professionals had at their disposal.   

Instead, Bonnie wasn’t getting better because she hadn’t actually been allowed to heal. Bonnie had experienced a trauma regarding horses, this fear didn’t just pop up out of the blue.  Because she’s utterly obsessed with a game of ball, she not only got closer to the horses than she wanted to be, but she essentially  blocked them from her mind. Simply removing the ball didn’t do the trick either; training for food is one of Bonnie’s preferred activities and so she shut the horses out then too, going into “training mode.” She appeared trained, but she had not transformed.

When I suggested to Tasha that she allow Bonnie to just look at horses, to just let her observe them from whatever distance she chose, things really started to turn around.  No more highly-valued reinforcers, just a long line and a harness, and as much space as Bonnie needed to feel safe.  Today she can accompany Tasha at the barn without incident, which is pretty miraculous.

Counterconditioning has its place and can be a valuable tool, but when it fails trainers need to be prepared with more options, not excuses.

1 Comment

  1. Darlene

    Do you do seminars or have trainers around the country that employ this method of cc/d for dogs that are dog reactive. I have one and I would like to be in close proximity, safely, to other dogs so I can participate in obedience trials etc


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