Just like us, dogs have rich emotional lives, and those emotions can drive their behavior. When your dog is feeling positive, it might lead to overexuberance or distraction – annoying but relatively harmless. However, when the underlying feelings are negative, like anxiety or fear, that can be downright dangerous. Aggression often stems from these negative emotions. Not to mention, it’s incredibly unpleasant for your dog. So how do you help? With desensitization and counterconditioning, you can change your dog’s negative emotions to positive ones.
When your dog feels anxious or scared about something, it’s usually either because it’s unfamiliar or they associate it with something bad. For instance, your dog might be afraid of strangers or other dogs due to lack of socialization as a puppy. Or maybe a past negative encounter turned them off. They might dislike nail trims because they never learned to be comfortable with you touching their paws. Or maybe one cut quick was enough to convince them nail trims are painful.
Genetics also play a huge part in dog’s personalities, including fears and shyness. A nervous, fearful dog can produce the same temperament in its puppies. Whatever the reason, your dog’s feelings toward that situation, known as the stimulus, are negative.
Don’t Flood Your Dog
Unfortunately, your dog can’t avoid nail trims or seeing other dogs and strangers on the street. Many of the things that cause anxiety and fear in dogs are unavoidable. So, what can you do? You could force your dog to face their fear head on. For example, you could take a dog with a fear of other dogs and plop them in the middle of a busy dog park. This is known as flooding.
If nothing bad happened in the dog park, your dog might come to feel differently about other dogs. However, it’s usually not that easy. It’s far more likely the experience will backfire, and your dog will end up even more frightened. Plus, your dog can’t give permission to undergo such an overwhelming experience. With the ethical considerations and the risk of making things worse, this is not the approach to take with your pet.
A far safer method is to change your dog’s negative feelings about an experience to positive ones. So rather than seeing other dogs as scary, your dog sees them as a chance to earn a game or treat. It’s all about flipping your dog’s perception.
Counterconditioning involves pairing every presentation of the stimulus with something your dog finds fabulous. It doesn’t matter what that is, as long as it’s wonderful from your dog’s point of view. Your dog might love tennis balls more than chicken or might do anything for a piece of apple. Determine what your dog loves and associate that item or activity with the stimulus. It’s hard for your dog to be scared when they’re anticipating something good.
Keep Your Dog Below Threshold
But that’s often not enough. If your dog is nervous or afraid, chances are they won’t eat or play. So how can you pair the treat with the event when your dog is disinterested? The trick is to keep your dog’s emotional response low enough that it doesn’t affect their behavior. This is known as keeping your dog below threshold. In other words, the problem situation isn’t actually a problem at the time.
You need to find the level where your dog doesn’t respond negatively. For a fear of other dogs, it might be when the other dog is 20 feet away. Do whatever it takes for your dog to relax and be receptive to the positive pairing you’ve chosen.
Now that you’ve found the level at which your dog doesn’t react, you’re ready to start counterconditioning. But the other dogs won’t always be 20 feet away. That’s where desensitization comes in. That’s the process of getting your dog used to something by starting at low levels of the stimulus then gradually working up to the final all-out event.
Moving from one level to the next can be tricky. You know your dog is ready when their association with the given level has become positive. You might notice your dog perk up when they see the other dog. They should look to you for their game, toy, or treat and their body language should be calm and relaxed. Before you increase the challenge, it must be obvious that your dog has learned the stimulus predicts good things.
Put it All Together
Now you’re ready to put it all together and help your dog conquer their negative emotions. The following sample plan for a fear of other dogs will help you break down all the elements of a stimulus, such as movement and sound, and develop your own desensitization and counterconditioning program.
- Have your dog 20 feet from a quiet and still dog. When your dog notices the other dog, provide something wonderful. When the other dog is gone, the wonderful thing should stop as well.
- Move your dog closer to the other dog one foot at a time. Keep your dog below threshold, only decreasing the distance when your dog is anticipating the treat.
- Once your dog can be next to the still, quiet dog, return to the 20-foot distance and have the other dog move parallel to your dog. Again, provide something wonderful when your dog notices the other dog.
- Decrease the distance until your dog can stand near the moving dog.
- Return to the 20-foot distance and repeat the procedure with the other dog making noise.
Remember, this process can take months. And the longer your dog has felt negatively about a stimulus, the longer desensitization and counterconditioning will take. The same is true with more complicated situations. If you’re struggling to help your dog or the situation involves any type of aggression, be sure to consult a dog trainer or animal behaviorist.