Desensitization and Counter-conditioning is a common protocol for working with dogs to overcome fears, phobias and reactivity. However, reading accounts of how people carry out counter-conditioning often reveals a fundamental error in practise and a misunderstanding of what counter-conditioning actually means. (As an aside, there are also errors in the practise of desensitization, but I will hopefully get to a post on that soon!).
In the context of helping a dog to be comfortable around something which previously triggered a negative emotional response, which is what DS & CC is used for, counter-conditioning refers to a CLASSICAL CONDITIONING procedure and not an operant conditioning one, yet in practise, this is not what people actually do.
In laymen’s terms, what do I mean? Classical conditioning is the association of one stimulus with another. It is where an animal learns that one event or stimulus predicts the arrival of another. For example, putting on running shoes predicts going for a walk, the doorbell predicts visitors etc. These events have nothing to do with the dog’s own behaviour – they just happen and the dog learns to connect them.
However, when people apply CC in a DS & CC scenario, they inevitably try to require some behaviour from the dog. So, for example, if a dog is scared of or reactive towards other dogs, they would expose the dog to another dog and then try to “reward” the dog, IF the dog remains calm or sits or does a focus exercise. This is not classical counter-conditioning. This is operant conditioning i.e. reinforcing a specific behaviour. In this case, the dog is being expected to make a choice as to how to respond and the “correct” response is then rewarded.
Why is this a problem? It is a problem, because it is not addressing the fundamental issue – the emotional state of the dog. If a dog is reactive or trying to avoid encounters with other dogs, it is the result of the dog feeling bad around other dogs. The point of DS & CC is CHANGE the way that the dog FEELS, because if this changes, the motivation for the unwanted behaviour is eliminated. In proper CC, the dog is not expected to do anything at all. We do not expect the dog to look at us, we do not expect the dog to sit, we do not expect the dog to lie down, walk on a loose lead, stay, not tense up etc etc…. We are not putting pressure on the dog to meet some expectation, we simply want to teach the dog that the sight of the previously scary thing (obviously at a distance that does not trigger the negative response – which is where the desensitization part comes in) = something wonderful e.g. baby-talk and mountains of treats or a favourite toy. If we place an expectation on the dog to perform some behaviour, we can unintentionally pressure the dog into “behaving” without actually changing how the dog feels. If those underlying feelings are still a problem, the unwanted behaviour will recur, because the root of the problem has not been dealt with.
Starting from a place of expecting the dog to DO something, is unnecessary and can hamper efforts to help the dog feel better as quickly as possible. Classical conditioning is extremely powerful – it is a subconscious process which is incredibly effective and lasting. Interfering with this process by only following up the sight of the trigger with the food or toy if the dog performs a behaviour, weakens the association of the trigger with good stuff. We need to stop being so obsessed with making our dogs work for everything and realise that they don’t have to earn the right for us to make them feel good about stuff they are unsure of. Every time that the trigger appears, the treats or toy should appear IMMEDIATELY – it is contingent on the appearance of the trigger and NOTHING else. Our job is simply to deliver the stuff that will create a positive association, not make the dog do something!
Operant conditioning and differential reinforcement (rewarding an incompatible behaviour e.g. rewarding focused attention on you rather than staring at a trigger) has a place, but that place is AFTER a good amount of DS a& CC. Start by fixing how your dog feels and take the pressure off of them to perform, until they are at a point where they are so comfortable, because of the positive associations you have built up, that making good choices is easy!