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Overview of Counterconditioning for Reactive Dogs

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David Adams

July 08, 2020

Dog Reactivity

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* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

Do you have, or know, a reactive dog? A reactive dog is a dog that overreacts to certain situations or stimuli. This often looks like lunging, growling, or excessive barking. There are some common triggers that dogs may be reactive to, including other dogs, tall people, loud noises like skateboards, and so forth.

There are many ways to manage your life with a reactive dog, which we’ve outlined in our article How to Enable a Reactive Dog to Live a Full Life. In this article, we’ll specifically cover counterconditioning, a type of dog training that aims to change your dog’s emotional response to a stimulus. In addition, we’ll go over some general tips that can help with reactivity.

Important note: Make sure to have a qualified trainer evaluate your dog before engaging in any new activities that have the potential to be harmful to your dog or anyone else (e.g. off leash play) or starting a new training plan.. You can definitely manage your dog’s environment and your own self-care, but it’s important to get a trainer involved when you have a reactive dog.

Positive Reinforcement and Counterconditioning

Contemporary dog training focuses on positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement training is the action of adding an item that your dog finds reinforcing (ex. food) to increase a behavior you like. Contemporary schools of thought also reject the idea of using physical or psychological forms of intimidation when training your dog.The idea behind positive reinforcement training is that it is both the most effective and the most humane way to train a dog (and other animals, like cats, as well) when done correctly. It is especially important to remember that when training a reactive dog harsh corrections or punishments can often instills fear and anxiety in dogs, and can make reactivity in dogs even more severe. 

General things that can help with reactivity in dogs

Exercise: If you are able to do it safely, getting more exercise can help dogs feel better overall. While it is certainly not a cure-all for reactivity, it can help to reduce boredom and stress in dogs, and in some cases that leads to less reactivity or less destructive behaviors. Check out our article 10 Unconventional Ways to Exercise Your Dog.

Learn about canine body language: A helpful step that you can take is to learn all you can about canine body language. Dogs communicate a lot with their bodies, and learning to read these communications can help you spot potentially triggering situations before your dog can progress to reactive behavior. 

Avoid unnecessary trigger situations and minimize your dog’s stress: Play it safe so your dog does not feel unnecessary stress. For example, if your dog is reactive to other dogs, don’t take a chance and try to introduce them to a friend’s new puppy in the hopes that this time is different. Try to make your dog’s environment and life as low-stress as possible. 

  • This step can also include managing your dog’s environment to minimize triggers, which we talk about more in this article.
  • Another good idea to minimize your dog’s stress is to change up your routine if necessary. Pet Central points out the example of walking by a fence where a dog always barks at your dog. Change up your walk route and think of other small things that are within your control, that could minimize your dog’s stress. Even if they feel small or insignificant, these stressors add up and can contribute to reactivity at the end of the day, and even taking away one or two of them can be a great relief for your dog (and you).
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Counterconditioning for reactive dogs

Again, remember that it’s important to have a qualified trainer evaluate your dog before engaging in any new activities. The most effective way to train a reactive dog is to work with a qualified trainer. The AKC has a helpful guide to choosing a dog trainer

The exact steps you take to countercondition your dog will depend on what trigger(s) the dog is reactive to. Generally, though, the idea is to create a new, positive association with the dog’s trigger. 

Counterconditioning and desensitization: definitions and how-to

According to the VCA, counterconditioning means “changing the pet’s emotional response, feelings or attitude toward a stimulus.” Desensitization, also according to the VCA, means “the gradual exposure to situations or stimuli that would bring on the undesirable behavior, but at a level so low that there is no negative response.” Desensitization and counterconditioning go together when you are training a reactive dog.

Here’s how to start counterconditioning your dog:

Gather lots of “high value” treats (think outside your everyday treats, here–something like small bits of cooked chicken, with no seasoning, can be great). Take your dog and your treats to an area where the dog’s trigger is, or is likely to appear. 

When you see the trigger and you see the dog observe it (but not yet reacting to it–you have to be quick!), start generously rewarding the dog with the treats. It is often helpful to have a way to “mark” the dog the moment they offer the desired behavior of looking calmly at the other dog. Many owners and handlers use words like “yes” or a clicker to achieve this. Work with a trainer to help you establish a way to mark your dogs great behavior. 

Your process for this will necessarily be different depending on the dog’s triggers, but no matter what your dog is reactive to, remember that your goal is to change the dog’s association from “this trigger is scary” to “this trigger is a predictor of incoming treats.” 

Remember: this process should be down slowly and with a lot of patience, and you should “start small.” That means that when you’re just starting out, make sure to mark and reward any behavior that even resembles a step in the right direction–even if it seems like it was an accident. It is important that your dog should not be exhibiting any signs of stress during this training. If they are ignoring you or the food then they are too close to the trigger and you need to gain space. A positive association cannot be built if our dog is already in the process of barking and lunging at the trigger. Your trainer will help you identify where to start with your dog to set them up for success. 

dog looking at owner

An important note: If your dog’s trigger is other dogs or people, or you have a leash reactive dog, you will need to work extra closely with a trainer to figure out how to countercondition your dog safely, which will depend on your dog, your home and the surrounding environment.

Check out more information on reactive dog training in our definitive guide: What is Dog Reactivity? The VCA’s Introduction to Desensitization and Counterconditioning is another helpful resource.

Counterconditioning a reactive dog can be challenging, but practicing patience with both your dog and yourself will go a long way!

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Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Alex Walker

Professional Canine Trainer - Accredited / PCT Level 2
Courteous Canine/DogSmith of Tampa
AKC CGC® and STAR Puppy Approved Evaluator 
Licensed Pet Dog Ambassador Instructor/Assessor

David Adams photo

David Adams

July 08, 2020

Dog Reactivity

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