So, continuing our talk about anxiety and reactivity, you can help your dog become more tolerant of certain things through counter-conditioning and learning to make positive associations with scary things.
Counter-conditioning is a technique employed in animal training, and in the treatment of phobias and similar conditions in humans, in which behavior incompatible with a habitual undesirable pattern is induced. Counter-conditioning is a sometimes lengthy process, depending on the nature and severity of the reactivity.
For example, let’s discuss Milo, a pit bull that I worked with for fearful reactivity towards new people. As soon as another person ventured into Milo’s field of vision, he would begin to react in an aggressive yet fearful manner towards them. His owners were concerned that he was going to hurt himself, or someone else, during these reactive episodes. But Milo had one big motivation: treats. Milo would do almost ANYTHING for a treat. I remember my first encounter with Milo very clearly. He lunged across the room at me as soon as I opened the door. But slowly, he began calming down and his owners and I would look for moments (some lasting as short as a few seconds) when he was calm and reward that behavior. Soon, he could tolerate my presence comfortably. But what about new people? We had to do the same thing with new people, and soon he began to offer new behaviors (incompatible with reactive behaviors) to his owners whenever he met someone he wasn’t comfortable with. He also began to get excited in a good way whenever new people were around, because that meant that a treat was soon to appear.
Milo is a success story. Several cases don’t make such good progress, or any progress at all; and whatever progress is gained is usually aided by chemical therapy, basket muzzles, etc.
Fearful reactivity, or any type of reactivity, is a product of over-stimulation. The dog has gotten too close to some form of stimulus that the dog doesn’t like. Not all reactivity is aggressive or fearful in nature. Reactivity can also be in the form of being too playful, barking, destructiveness and so on. The trick to successful counter-conditioning is teaching an incompatible behavior. Does your dog jump when he becomes excited? Teach your dog to lie down whenever he’s around something that excites him. Does your dog growl at new people? Teach your dog to turn around and touch your palm with his nose instead of growling.
Next time, we’re going to discuss separation anxiety and body language!
-Ben The Dog Trainer