Counter Conditioning and Dog Desensitization

Counter Conditioning and Dog Desensitization: What They Are and Why They Work

What They Are and Why They Work

A clap of thunder. A knock on the door. A yapping dog down the street.

Counter Conditioning, Dog Training, Puppy Training, Dog Desensitization
Door knocking causing a dog to bark.

Certain sounds can set off negative responses in some dogs, and frankly, they can be pretty annoying. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a dog-training expert to change your dog’s negative responses to sounds. You simply need a little know-how, the right tools, patience, and consistency.

When it comes to changing your dog’s negative responses to sounds, there are two popular dog training methods that can be used: counter conditioning and desensitization. Either of these methods can work when used alone, but a better, more powerful solution is to utilize both counter conditioning and dog desensitization methods together.

Let’s look at how each one works.

What is Counter Conditioning?

You may remember learning about Pavlov in school, but let’s do a quick review. Back in the late 1800s, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov conducted an experiment where he would ring a bell then feed his dogs. The dogs soon began to salivate when they heard the bell ring. He continued this same process – ring the bell, present the food, cause dogs to salivate – for a bit. Then he changed it up. He would ring the bell but not present food, and guess what? The dogs would still salivate.

Salivating when the bell rang is what is now known as a “Pavlovian” response, and it is the basis of a dog-training method known as classical conditioning. This training method involves taking a stimulus that already causes a natural response ( i.e., the food, which naturally caused the dogs to salivate) and a conditioned stimulus (i.e., the bell) to create a new “natural” response to the conditioned stimulus (i.e., salivating at the bell). This works great for basic commands like “sit,” “stay,” and so on where you can reward for behavior.

Counter Conditioning, Dog Training, Puppy Training, Dog Desensitization
Dog Training through Classical Conditioning

However, what if your dog has negative behavior towards certain stimuli? For example, what if your dog barks like crazy every time someone knocks on the door?

This is where a type of classical conditioning known as counter conditioning can help with dog training. In dog training, counter conditioning refers to combining a positive experience – usually with treats, play time, toys, or even simple praise – with something the dog originally thought of as negative, such as the knock on the door. So, for example, before you can teach your dog to not bark, counter conditioning requires replacing the negative behavior (e.g., barking) with something the dog associates as positive, such as “sit” – a classically-conditioned response taught by rewarding the behavior.  

Counter conditioning works, but it does take time, patience, and consistency. It typically will not work if your training is hit or miss.

What is Dog Desensitization?

Dog desensitization is another popular dog training method. It is an easier method to implement because it can be done somewhat on autopilot if you have the right tools.

Let’s start by looking at how psychologists use desensitization to help people with phobias. The idea is to slowly introduce that scary stimulus in non-threatening ways until it’s no longer bothersome. Then you up the ante, making the next stimulus a little more stressful.

For example, if is someone is afraid of spiders, a therapist may start by having the patient study pictures of a spider in a book. Once the patient is ok with that, they have to watch videos about spiders. Next, the patient looks at live spiders through glass at a pet store or zoo. As patients progress, they may even be able to hold a spider.

It’s a timely process, but it works.

Like their humans, dogs often have their own phobias – like loud noises from thunder, fireworks, vacuum cleaners, etc. Or they may practice negative behaviors, like aggressively barking when someone knocks on the door.

Counter Conditioning, Dog Training, Puppy Training, Dog Desensitization
Dog barking as a person approaches.

In dog training, dog desensitization involves exposing the dog to the problematic stimulus slowly, increasing the intensity over time. One key is to go slowly and not up the level of intensity until your dog shows zero signs of stress. If using an app like TrainAway, you will want to begin at low volume and slow duration, then gradually increase the volume and frequency as your dog accepts the sound without a negative response. If you go too loud or too frequent too quickly, your dog’s tolerance for the stimulus may create a strong negative reaction and decrease its tolerance for the sound.

Like counter conditioning, desensitization takes time and patience. Unlike counter conditioning, however, you do not necessarily have to be front and center in the process for it to work. While you should supervise the experience, if you have the proper tools – like the TrainAway dog training app – you can let the app do most of the work for you.

How the TrainAway Dog Training App Helps in Dog Desensitization & Counter Conditioning

Unlike other dog apps or YouTube sound replicators, TrainAway doesn’t flood your dog with stimuli. “Flooding” is questionable type of dog training where the dog is exposed to a stimulus for a continuous amount of time (i.e., “flooded”) while in a safe environment to help the dog realize there is no reason to be afraid. The benefits and effectiveness of flooding are uncertain, and more and more dog trainers are steering clear of this method altogether.  However, many training apps and other resources still use this disputed method.

The TrainAway dog training app, on the other hand, never plays sounds back to back, but rather always waits at least 10 minutes between each round of the selected noise. TrainAway also allows you to adjust the volume, duration, and frequency of the selected stimulus, such as door knocking.

The TrainAway dog app provides several varieties of each stimuli. For example, there are currently 6 door knocking options from which to choose so you can simulate the one most closely to your own door – or you can you record your own.

Another way that TrainAway is unique is that it allows you to “chain” sounds together. For example, some dogs will bark when they hear a chain of events. They hear a car pull into the driveway, followed by a car door slam, then the door knocking. TrainAway allows you to select multiple sounds to make up the sequence that you want your dog to become desensitized to.  TrainAway offers nearly 100 professionally recorded sounds of noises often elicit negative responses from dogs.

Counter Conditioning, Dog Training, Puppy Training, Dog Desensitization

A Long-Term Process

While there aren’t any overnight fixes for changing your dog’s negative responses to certain sounds, both counter conditioning and dog desensitization are highly proven dog training methods that any dedicated dog owner can implement. With patience and consistency, your dog’s negative behavior should improve or even disappear altogether.

By Allison Hester Apr 30th 2019

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