Now that we know why our dog is barking at other dogs/people on walks and we have an idea of the best tools to use, let’s talk about what we actually need to DO to make it stop. Because the root of your dog’s reactivity is most likely fear (if it’s not, it’s frustration and that’s a bit of a different story), we have to get to that root, that emotion and change it before the outward behaviour can change.
This is where Pavlov comes in. It’s so simple, you might read this and smack your hand to your forehead.
What is it?
Counter conditioning is a simple, effective training technique to change a dog’s association with an object, animal, or person from a bad feeling to a good feeling. In this technique, we use carefully timed food treats to teach a dog that the thing they fear is nothing to be afraid of, and is in fact, predicts something fabulous. Think back to Ivan Pavlov - the dogs learned to associate food with the ringing of the bell and this can change their emotional state and, in turn, their behaviour.
How to train
Find a novel food - something your dog has never had but is likely to absolutely LOVE. The meatier, softer, juicier the treat, the more impact it will have on the training. Some ideas are canned chicken, canned sardines (in water, not oil!), cat food pouch, wet dog food in a squeeze tube, low-fat cheese, steak, bbq pork (without spices or sauce), meatballs/meatloaf, boiled chicken, you get the idea. Need some ideas? Click here for some ideas or click here for my famous doggie meatloaf recipe!
Cut the treats into bite-sized pieces no larger than an M&M. Put them in an easy-to-get-to container like a bait bag, an old fanny pack, or an apron pocket.
Begin happy-talking and feeding your dog as soon as they notice the trigger.
Continue treating your dog at a rate of about one treat per second for as long as the trigger is present.
The moment the trigger disappears, you abruptly stop the stream of treats and happy talk and go on your disappointed way. “Man…too bad that trigger went away. Triggers bring the best stuff!”
Repeat the process every time your dog notices the trigger. Be mindful about the order of events. The trigger must be noticed before the happy-talk and food starts so that the trigger predicts the good stuff and not the other way around!
Rules of thumb:
Don’t feed your dog the special treat any other time that the trigger is not present. It must be a sacred food that they love!
Make sure the scary trigger doesn’t stay in sight for too long. That might mean you have to happy-talk, treat, AND move your dog away at the same time.
If your dog seems fearful, isn’t taking treats, or doesn’t become more relaxed after several repetitions, increase the distance between them and the trigger. These exercises only work if your dog is comfortable and relaxed enough to learn.
Happy-talk and feed every time your dog is exposed to the trigger. Behaviour doesn't take a day off!
Even if your dog is barking, start the happy-talk and food-stream. The barking is a by-product of an emotion and you are NOT using food as a reward in this context - you are using it to create an association. If your dog is barking so much that they cannot take food, all you can do is walk them away and try again later at a greater distance where they are able to take food.
Do NOT make the food contingent on a behaviour; never ask the dog to sit or look at you before feeding in this context. You are simply creating a prediction in your dog's mind: "when the scary thing appears, food rains from the sky...therefore, I now happily anticipate the scary thing!"
Examples of when to use Counter Conditioning:
With dogs that growl, bark, or lunge at other dogs.
With dogs that growl, bark, or lunge at people.
With dogs that are afraid of cars, bicycles, skateboards, etc.
With dogs that are afraid of garage doors, revving engines, etc.
Go on - arm yourself and give it a try for a week or two. I can’t wait to find out how you do with it. Leave a comment below to let me know!