What about strangers? Does your dog get scared whenever visitors come to your house?
Lots of dogs become frightened whenever they:
- Hear loud noises (like fireworks or thunderstorms)
- See certain things (like strange people)
- Smell certain smells (like other dogs, another animal, or food perhaps)
If your normally calm and assertive dog becomes a frightened dog during certain times, then you may want to try some counter conditioning techniques.
If you have a dog that becomes frightened only during certain situations, then counter conditioning may work for you.
How Counter Conditioning Works
Counter conditioning means changing the emotions that cause the behavior. Technically speaking…
Counter conditioning means conditioning (training) an animal to display a behavior that is counter to (mutually exclusive of) an unacceptable behavior in response to a particular stimulus. For example, a dog cannot be trying to bite the letter carrier and at the same time greeting them in a friendly, excited manner. Source
A good example of this is when a person tosses a few treats at a dog that is scared of him. Using counter conditioning (and with enough repetition) you are teaching your dog that when a stranger is near, he’ll get a really good treat. As a result, your dog’s emotions during those times will eventually change.
Tossing treats (or toys) to a fearful dog can teach him to associate approaching strangers with something good, as long as the treat is really, really good, and the visitor is far enough away to avoid overwhelming the dog. Source
Some people say that by giving your dog a treat for what they are afraid of you are rewarding the dog for being afraid. But it’s also been shown that you can’t reinforce fear in dogs. So yes, it’s perfectly okay to pet your dog and try other methods to calm him during his stressful moments.
In reality, if you give your dog a treat when he is afraid, you are basically trying to get him to relax, take his focus off of one thing (the scary stimulus) and put it onto another thing (the treat), and change his perspective about what’s going on at the moment.
The hope is that your dog will eventually associate these types of moments with other really good moments when he typically gets treats.
Uses For Counter Conditioning
Counter conditioning can be used with many frightened dog scenarios.
For example, it can be used when a dog is afraid of thunder. In that case, whenever you hear thunder, immediately give your dog a treat. After enough time, your dog will no longer be afraid of thunder.
If your dog is afraid of fireworks, try giving him a treat every time a loud boom goes off. The more this behavior is repeated, the less fearful he will be of fireworks.
If your dog is afraid of the vacuum cleaner, try giving him treats every time you turn the vacuum cleaner on. Then give more treats as you continue to move the vacuum cleaner around the room.
This video shows counter conditioning used with a dog that is afraid of the vacuum cleaner:
Keep In Mind…
If you happen to be frightened also, then your dog will pick up on that. Trying to condition your dog to tune out what you yourself cannot tune out will simply not work.
So perhaps you’ll need to work on your own fear first. Once you’re ready to use counter conditioning with your dog, you’ll want to remain calm — inside and out — and talk to your dog slowly (or don’t talk to your dog at all). As long as you are calm and not showing fear, then your dog will be easier to condition.
The following video shows how well counter conditioning can work.
In this case, a dog that was once fearful and terrified of the behaviors that strangers would do (reaching out to pet her, kids tugging on her ear, fast movements, loud noises, and poking & prodding) is now comfortable in the presence of those things.
More About Counter Conditioning With Dogs
- The Fearful Dog
- Dog Fears & Behavioral Modifications
- The ASPCA’s View On Desensitization & Counter Conditioning
- Physiological & Behavioral Reactivity To Stress In Thunderstorm Phobic Dogs
- Desensitization & Counter Conditioning With Dogs