Why Counterconditioning “Doesn’t Work”

By Angelica Steinker

relaxed dog lying on back
Counterconditioning can only be successful when a dog feels safe and relaxed © Can Stock Photo/damedeeso

A common criticism of counterconditioning is that it does not work. While there can be many reasons why a behavior modification protocol based on counterconditioning fails, it is, in fact, almost always user error. Here are four common reasons that cause counterconditioning to fail:

Lack of a Global Safe Zone

Counterconditioning is only successful when the dog who is supposed to be counterconditioned feels safe. There are two basic ways to know a dog feels safe:

1. The dog is playful
2. The dog is relaxed

It is impossible to feel safe and be afraid. It is impossible to feel safe and not be relaxed. Playful dogs display happy body language while engaging in an activity intended to entertain themselves or themselves and other animals or people. A playful dog is not frantic.

When working with a dog, create an ethogram of the individual dog. This means knowing exactly how this specific dog uses her body language to signal mild, moderate and severe stress as well as how she uses her body to signal mild, moderate and strong signals that indicate relaxation or play. The ethogram can then be used to analyze her body language at any given moment. Consider the following when creating the ethogram:

• Top line: relaxed dogs’ top lines are usually lowered; stressed dogs often raise their top lines. You should establish a baseline for a typical top line for the individual dog. When it is lower than the baseline, then the dog is relaxed; if it is higher it may be a sign of trouble. Play would be the obvious exception as a raised top line is often part of play.

• Raised whisker beds: tiny signals such as this can be a sign of stress. Again, this may accompany play, which is why understanding the context is so important.

• Head turning and tongue flicking: these are common signs of stress for most dogs.

• Excessive sniffing: again, we are looking for what deviates from normal baseline sniffing; dogs who are dog reactive often sniff intensely, and this is usually a signal that they are not feeling safe.

Once the dog’s personal ethogram is clearly established, you can use it to evaluate how the dog feels about any given situation. For counterconditioning, the first thing that must be looked at is whether or not this dog feels safe in her home and other environments that are part of her normal routine. I refer to familiar areas where the dog feels fundamentally safe as her global safe zone. If a dog does not even feel safe in her own home, counterconditioning in other locations will likely fail.

To establish a global safe zone, the trainer and owner work together to remove all stressors from the dog’s life. If conflict exists between the dog and her housemate, then the dogs are separated. If the dog is showing stress on walks, then the walks are temporarily modified or stopped. All adjustments are made to enable the dog to feel safe in her home and all routine environments.

Lack of a Situational Safe Zone

I refer to novel areas where the dog feels safe as a situational safe zone. A dog may have an ideal global safe zone but finds going to a large, busy outdoor mall stressful. He exhibits signs of stress that are specific to this situation. Any attempt to countercondition in this situation will likely fail.

Both the global and the situational safe zones must be in effect for counterconditioning to be successful. Its goal is to elicit a positive conditioned emotional response of relaxation and/or play where, previously, there was a negative emotional response. If the dog’s baseline emotional state is fearful when you begin your attempt to countercondition, you will be pairing this undesired emotion with the very stimulus you are attempting to countercondition. This is why counterconditioning fails when a dog is feeling unsafe. We also need to look at consistency.

Consider, for example, counterconditioning a dog who has some mild dog reactivity. If he is mostly feeling safe, but is subjected to sporadic rough and stressful visits from the neighbor’s dog, the entire counterconditioning plan is undermined.

The Force is Not with You

The third reason counterconditioning can fail is simple: lack of power in the reinforcer. If the food or toys you are using to countercondition are not sufficiently reinforcing, they will not be powerful enough to help condition that new, happy emotional state. Likewise, if the goal is relaxation but the massage that the trainer or owner is giving the dog is not truly relaxing for that dog, then the plan will fail. Find what works the best for each individual dog and watch your counterconditioning efforts succeed.

Play for Maximum Fun

Fourth, you cannot start a counterconditioning program until you have completed your play and fun assessment. That means finding out which games really make this dog happy. Does he prefer fetch, tug or chase? These games must be part of the counterconditioning process.

The length of time spent playing must far exceed the time spent exposed to the stimulus. You toggle back and forth between exposure and play, ensuring that although the dog perceives the stimulus, he is not feeling any stress. If he looks at the stimulus, the play must continue for a longer period of time than he spent looking at it. This creates a happy and playful attitude in the dog.

It is all in the details when it comes to counterconditioning successfully. Get safety and maintain it. Get relaxation and maintain it. Find the reinforcers and games that boost the fun factor to high. And create the ultimate incompatible emotional state: happiness.

This article first appeared in BARKS from the Guild, May 2015, pp.56-57. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.


About the Author
For more than 20 years full time, Angelica Steinker, president and founder of Courteous Canine, Inc. has specialized in dog training methods that create “Results the Fun Way.” Using consent testing and empowerment training, she and her team have successfully trained thousands of puppies and adult dogs in basic manners/obedience, trick training, problem behavior modification, agility, dock jumping and other skills, all while increasing the bond of trust between dogs and their human companions.

She is also a published author in the field of dog training and agility. Her books, Agility Success: Training and Competing with Your Dog in the Winning Zone and Click and Play Agility, address the handler of the agility team and the use of clicker training techniques in the sport respectively, and emphasize the importance of playing and bonding in order to train agility behaviors to the highest level. Her newest project is on dog aggression, something she is particularly passionate about. Her current book Play Therapy for Dogs is due to be published this year and addresses how to use play to create optimum behavior change.

She a former member steering committee and founding member of the Pet Professional Guild, and co-founder and former faculty of DogNostics Career College a pet care, dog training and dog behavior trade school.

She has been published in the Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior and the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, and as a regular columnist in BARKS from the Guild, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers’ Chronicle of the Dog, and Clean Run.

She is also a former advisory board member and faculty at the Companion Animal Sciences Institute (CASI) and a CASI dog behavior program graduate, is accredited as a canine behavior consultant through the Pet Professional Accreditation Board, and certified through Applied Animal Behavior Professionals and International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

She is a sought-after public speaker who has presented at conferences worldwide and is also a former American Kennel Club agility judge and a current North American Diving Dogs judge.

She has a master’s in education and mental health counseling, which has served as the foundation for her learning of dog behavior and her understanding of emotional learning, and of course, operant and respondent conditioning. 

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