Counterconditioning, also referred to as stimulus substitution, simply means the training of a pet to respond to a certain stimulus in a different way than it currently does. A stimulus can refer to any number of things such as people, events, substances (like water), animals, machinery, noises (car alarms, thunder), and much more. Should your pet display responses of fear, aggression, and anxiety to certain stimuli, counterconditioning is an effective method of adjusting his or her behavior.
How it Works
Keep It Simple
Your dog needs for you to keep things simple and consistent. Say you’re counter-conditioning your dog not to freak out whenever she hears the doorbell ring. Every time the bell rings, you hand her a treat she loves. That’s all good. The thing is, you have to keep this order of events lined up always otherwise you might end up with some unexpected results!
If your dog is really unnerved by the ringing of a doorbell, and you get her used to getting a treat right before the doorbell rings, you could end up with a dog that’s really afraid of doggie treats as well as door bells!
Keep the Events as Close Together as Possible
As soon as the event you’re trying to get your dog acclimatized to occurs, you’ve got to give her the treat. If you wait even a couple of minutes before giving her the treat, she’ll have no idea what to make of it. She’ll love it, sure, but the longer the time period between the stimulus and the treat, the harder it is for your dog to make the connection between the two.
Make Your Reward Something Special
It isn’t really a treat if Fluffy has her bowl full of the stuff available 24/7. It has to be something she loves and isn’t available to her regularly. The rarer the reward, the more effective it will be in your counterconditioning program.
Don’t Give Your Dog Instructions When the Event Appears
You shouldn’t ask your dog to perform any actions as a response to the stimulus you’re trying to get her comfortable with. Remember that the point of what you’re doing isn’t really to teach her any new behavior as such, but simply to get her to believe that the ringing bell isn’t something to freak out over but to be welcomed. Keep it simple.
Stay On Top of the Situation
This important. Throughout this process, you have to be careful not to rush your dog into accepting the thing you’re trying to get her used you all at once. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Fluffy there will probably need some time and patience on your part to feel at ease.
The way to accomplish this is by introducing the stimulus in gradual measures to get her used to it slowly. We’ll stick with the ringing doorbell example here, although it applies to any stimulus. You could start out the program by setting your bell to its lowest possible volume or having your pet at a distance when you ring it, with your treats handy. It should be soft enough or distant enough that she will be aware of it, maybe pricking up her ears or focusing in its direction, but not getting to the point of barking, growling, backing away or generally freaking out.
The reason we start out small is to make the process as stress-free as possible as you work closer to normal stimulus levels. If you start out at full blast, she just won’t be able to take in the lesson you’re teaching out of fear or the overriding urge to lash out. The fight or flight response will block out everything, so you need to keep it to tolerable minimums.
A thing to take note of is that you shouldn’t hold back on the treat if your pet shows signs of agitation on hearing the bell. When you produce the treat even as she’s growling softly or backing away in anxiety, don’t imagine that you’re doing further harm by rewarding the behavior you want to get rid of, though it might seem like it – keep the treats coming her way. Like we said, this is a matter of patience, so keep going at it and she’ll gradually come to understand that there is no cause for alarm.
Keep Events Close
As soon as the bell rings, immediately present the treat to make sure the relationship between the bell and the treat firmly establishes itself in your pet’s mind. However, as soon as the ringing dies out, the treats should disappear as well for as long as you are taking your dog through the counterconditioning program.
Don’t Go Overboard
Don’t push your dog or yourself too hard working this program. Fatigue will lead to frustration and impatience on the dog’s part and yours. This isn’t a good learning condition. Go through maybe a dozen repetitions per session, giving yourselves some time to rest up and refresh between sessions.
Take care not to fall into a rhythm your pet will be able to pick up on. Switch up the intervals between sessions otherwise Fluffy might come to think a treat comes like clockwork after a certain specific time period, rather than associating it with the bell.