How To Calm A Frightened Dog With Treats (aka Counterconditioning)

by Carrie

4th Of July Dog Ideas, Dog Behavior Issues, Fearful And Nervous Dogs, Weather Emergencies & Storms

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When there is a thunderstorm outside, does your dog freak out?  Is your dog scared of storms?

What about strangers?  Does your dog get scared whenever visitors come to your house?  Or whenever you stop to talk to someone on a walk outside?

See how you can calm a frightened dog by using classical counter conditioning.

Lots of dogs become frightened whenever they:

If your normally calm and assertive dog becomes a frightened dog during certain times, then you may want to try the following counterconditioning techniques.

If your dog becomes frightened only during certain situations, then counterconditioning may work well for you!

It does take some patience and persistence though.

Here’s how it works…


How Counterconditioning Works With Dogs

Counterconditioning 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 counterconditioning (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 has 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:

  1. Get him to relax.
  2. Take his focus off of one thing (the scary stimulus).
  3. Put it onto another thing (the treat).
  4. 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!


How To Do Counterconditioning With Your Dog

Counterconditioning is very helpful and can be used with many frightened dog scenarios:

  • If your dog is afraid of thunder, whenever you hear thunder, immediately give your dog a treat.  After doing this enough times, your dog will (naturally) no longer be afraid of thunder.
  • If your dog is afraid of fireworks, give your dog 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, give your dog treats every time you turn the vacuum cleaner on.  Then give more treats as you continue to move the vacuum cleaner around the room.

Here’s how to do counterconditioning step-by-step.

This video shows the use of counterconditioning 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 counterconditioning with your dog, you 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.”

This next video shows how well counterconditioning can work:

As you can see, 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, poking and prodding) is now comfortable in the presence of those things!


More Counterconditioning Tips For Dog Owners