Preventative Counterconditioning…because bad stuff happens

Dog training is supposed to be a thoughtful process.  During planned training sessions we should keep dogs under threshold.  If only life were that easy.

Imagine a loose dog charging while the owner flails their arms shouting, “He’s friendly.”  It is the child screaming, “Doggie” and rushing to pet the fearful dog.  Life is when you accidentally knock over a heavy metal gate and it clashes and startles.

Unless you cloister your dog away from the universe, scary stuff happens.  Life is just not fair and can throw some interesting challenges our way.  We are facing this at our home tonight.

A few hours ago, I became aware that our new neighbours planned to host a party in their McMansion.  It is possibly the most massive party I have ever seen.  It rivals reality television standards.  I first became aware of the situation as the band started sound check.

If I felt so inclined, I could lob Frisbees off the back of the band member’s heads.  As if that wasn’t enough, the celebration includes a professional fireworks show.  We have front row seats.

My son plays drums, so the dogs are accustomed to loud sounds.  However, stacks of Marshall amplifiers are sure to shake the walls and windows.  I can only hope that between our noise desensitization and our son’s practicing that we are sufficiently prepared.

The fireworks have me concerned.  My dogs have only heard fireworks in the form of a free phone app.  Between learning about the event at the last minute and our close proximity, our choices are limited.

  • We could rent a hotel room and avoid a stressful night.
  • We could chop up some chicken and countercondition the dog in vivo (In real life).

We chose to forge ahead with a counterconditioning plan.  Simply put, it means feeding tasty treats when the fireworks explode.  Treats, or other pleasant activities, flow freely regardless of the dog’s behaviour.  Fireworks predict chicken, so fireworks become good through association.

Desensitization (working in small steps easiest to hardest), often paired with counterconditioning is a luxury that does not exist tonight.   If my dogs had noise phobias, I might have chosen the hotel.  I have no desire to flood or traumatize any animal.  It’s a calculated decision.  However, if the dogs accidentally go over threshold we can leave.  I never plan on making that mistake, but it is worth noting that it can happen.

Real life can and does slap us in the face unexpectedly.  By being alert, we can use preventative counterconditioning.  By this, I mean that we take advantage of every first encounter, making it a positive one.  The fireworks are a first for my dogs.

Not all novel experiences are as extreme as the party next door is.  Your dog has many firsts.  Things will unexpectedly startle your dog.  When they happen, your dog is deciding if they pose a threat.

We can influence the dog’s experience.  When something new happens, feed your dog something tasty.  Good behaviour is not required.

  • Car backfires – treat
  • Police sirens wail – treat
  • Baby cries – treat
  • Dog barks – treat
  • Accidentally step on their paw – treat
  • A dog rushes – treat (For safety’s sake, wait until the offending dog is out of the way and under control.)
  • A car enters the driveway or a door slams – treat.
  • Roar of a lawn mower, the snow blower, a chainsaw, the vacuum, see a horse – give a treat.

The dog does not have sit or obey any command to get the food.  I don’t care if my dog sits when they hear firecrackers.  I want them comfortable and relaxed when it happens.  That is achieved by feeding the appearance of a trigger.

Pre-emptively feeding of what may be a bad situation is an exercise that has served all of our dogs well.  Our process of feeding a treat at new situations becomes my way of telling the dog, “That surprising thing…it’s nothing to worry about.”

I do this with seemingly minor nuisances.  I cannot know if a surprise is slightly concerning to the dog.  With repetition, the dog can sensitize to nuisances, becoming more agitated with each exposure.  Erring on the side of caution by clearly communicating that there is no danger is one small step that can pay out huge dividends.

Life happens

I tell clients to recognize times when their dog might feel ambushed.  Who hasn’t experienced the surprise of a fence fighting dog charging?  If and when it is safe to do so, feed your dog.  Do damage control on the assumption that your dog was just as blindsided as you were.

Failing to anticipate problems and failing to act on behalf of our dogs leaves them vulnerable.  By doing nothing, you are leaving the dog’s decision to chance.  That seems just short sighted to me.  As the dog’s caretaker, we have the foresight – the ability to predict – things that may become problematic.

By counterconditioning at every opportune moment, we can give our dogs confidence.  We do not have to wait for fears, phobias and anxiety to take hold.  Behaviour is not stagnant, nor is it ever “finished.”  You can allow life to chip away at your dog’s confidence or actively work at making it stronger.

Dogs would face far fewer rehabilitation protocols if firsts in their lives were anticipated – influenced with a delicious piece of food.  This does not mean that dogs must live a life immersed in things they do not enjoy.  I would not enjoy living next to a house that had weekly parties.  I would move if that were the case.  Similarly, my dog does not have to stand next to the mower.  It is loud.  However, I do not want them fleeing into the house every time a neighbour revs up a power tool.  Our dogs should not feel like there are boogie men lurking in the bushes, always scanning and searching for information that warns of a potential problem.

There are times when we all startle.  Life surprises us.  Pre-emptive treats are about influencing the dog’s interpretation when bad things, out of our control, happen.  Does the dog startle and retreat?  Does the dog shake it off and realize that it’s no big deal?  That’s not a lesson I’m willing to leave to the universe.

How’d it work out for us?  You tell us.  (If your dog is afraid of fireworks or band music, reduce the volume and prepare for some preventative counterconditioning.  Feel free to add desensitization because you have the ability to control the volume.)

The video is dark and difficult to see.  Nevertheless, it is real life – jammie pants and all.  The dogs were on leash initially as a precaution.  To me, the moment that makes me smile is when Karma runs off.  She’s running toward the show.  My son has to bring her back to me so I can keep her in frame.  Do not underestimate the power of tasty morsels of food.

Food has the power to change emotions.

As Highway to Hell rattles the foundations of our house, all the animals are sleeping.  As a trainer, I’d give my right arm if all preventable problems were addressed with a little pre-planning.  Tomorrow, I’m going to predict that it’s plausible that we will hear the bang of a few leftover fireworks.  You can bet that I’ll have treats in my pocket all day waiting for it to happen.

10 thoughts on “Preventative Counterconditioning…because bad stuff happens

  1. Thanks for the reminder! I have roofers coming this week to get the new roof on before the snow flies. Two littles and a huge run the door barking when someone arrives. This will be a true test.

  2. Pingback: On counter-conditioning and desensitization - | Dog Forums and Community

  3. Pingback: Here's Why Using Food In Training Is Your Best Option

  4. We’ve had huge success with this type of positive reinforcement for potential scary situations. Our puppy is now very confident and will “get over” a shock of loud sounds just as quick as me. I don’t always have snacks on me but anything potentially scary that happens, we first try not to react in a negative way (ignore it as best as we can) to send the message that it’s unimportant, then we pet her and tell her she’s a good dog when she keeps walking and shows no fear. We took her to fireworks (they were quite far off) when she was extremely young several times and she fell asleep eating snacks. She was actually more frightened by the people clapping and getting up at the same time. I wouldn’t do this with a puppy that showed any fear in the first place but we had built her up to it and she was always pretty confident. We play fireworks and thunderstorms on our speakers once in awhile and during her first thunderstorm, we were huddled in a tent and she fell asleep again. I think it’s much easier in puppies but it also needs to be practiced throughout their life. Great post and I thoroughly agree!

  5. If only life were always so straightforward. A wonderful article, but I’d like to add a slight cautionary tale: as newbie pet parents back in 2002, we had a seven-month old Golden Retriever. Our dog trainer at the time warned us that Guy Fawkes night was coming up soon (we lived in Oxford, England at the time), and instructed all her puppy parents to load up on the treats, and behave normally and happy about the fireworks when they happened. The only problem was that our trainer never anticipated that it would be the neighbors letting off the fireworks, and that there’d be no distance involved. As a naive puppy mom, when our neighbor started the fireworks that night, I excitedly called Jock-dog to come outside with me and the bag of yummiest chicken and cheese in my hand. I was following my instructions to the letter. At the very first bang over our heads, Jock took off, broke through the fence, and was gone into the night! I had to ask my neighbors to stop their fireworks so that I could stand a chance of recalling him. To their credit, they not only stopped their party, but sent out various search parties to help find Jock. It took us two hours to find him in the dark. We went out with vehicles and on foot, we searched the streets and the nearby fields. Eventually, somebody found him about a mile away from home, shivering under a bush far away from any houses. They had to call us to come and extract him because he was too afraid of going with strangers. Needless to say, we never did get Jock over his fireworks, storm and hot-air balloon phobias for the rest of his life. Nowadays, I know better.

    • I agree 100%. As stated, I may have made a different choice with a different dog. And the leashes were still on my dogs as a precaution. But, as the neighbours set the leftover fireworks off the next day, I was really glad I had some treats ready. It’s like the sword of Damocales waiting for those bangs in the week after.

  6. This is a fantastic article!! I have a wonderful dog who has some issues with trust with strangers, and I am using the counter conditioning technique to help him overcome his fears. Today we were in a large crowd at a football game. There were whistles, children running, and lots of people walking by. I fed him a new high value treat as we walked about, and he quickly adapted, and even allowed strangers to approach and pet his head without ducking away! Thanks to our fantastic trainers, I knew to apply this technique, and it was awesome!!!!

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  8. When I first started doing in vivo counterconditioning with my thunder-phobic dog Summer, of course my other (non-fearful) dogs copped to the system and started showing up for their goodies. Just out of habitual fairness, I started treating them too.

    I wryly mentioned to my teacher one day that my other dogs thought that thunderstorms were the best thing ever. She said, “That’s what we want!” Klong!! The sound of Eileen getting it. Phobias and fears, especially sound phobias, can crop up at any age, and typically get worse if not treated. Preventative work is worth its weight in gold.

    I hope this post gets shared far and wide. It could help so many dogs and their people.

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