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From Reactivity to Relaxation: Counter-conditioning for Your Pet

Our pets can experience fear and anxiety just like we do. These anxieties can manifest as undesirable behaviours such as lunging and barking at other dogs on walks, hiding during storms, or destructive chewing when left alone. While it can be heartbreaking to see your furry friend distressed, there are ways to help them overcome their fears and anxieties. One highly effective technique is called counter-conditioning.


What is Counter-conditioning?

Counter-conditioning is rooted in the principles of classical conditioning, a type of learning where an animal forms an association between two things. In this technique, we aim to change a negative association into a positive one.


Let's say your dog is afraid of the vacuum cleaner. Counter-conditioning means pairing the scary sight and sound of the vacuum cleaner with something your dog loves, like a tasty treat or a fun game. Over time, your dog will start to associate the vacuum cleaner with those good things, changing their emotional response from fear to excitement.


Counter-conditioning vs. Desensitisation

Counter-conditioning is often used alongside desensitisation. Desensitisation involves gradually exposing your pet to the fear-inducing stimulus at a low intensity and slowly increasing it as your pet becomes comfortable. This helps them realise the stimulus isn't really a threat.


Counter-conditioning takes it a step further. It's not just about making the stimulus tolerable; it's about making your pet like the thing they once feared.


How Counter-conditioning Works

Here's how to put counter-conditioning into practice:

  • Identify the Trigger: Pinpoint the exact thing that causes your pet's fearful reaction.

  • Choose a High-Value Reward: Find a treat, toy, or activity that your pet absolutely adores. This will be the positive reinforcement.

  • Start Small: Begin by introducing the trigger at a very low intensity or from a distance while simultaneously giving your pet their special reward.

  • Gradual Increase: As your pet remains calm, slowly increase the intensity of the trigger or move it closer.

  • Be Patient and Consistent: Counter-conditioning takes time. Celebrate small victories and remain consistent with your training sessions.


Example: Reactivity to Other Dogs

This behaviour is often related to fear and anxiety.

  1. Identify the trigger: That means other dogs!

  2. High-value reward: Choose your dog's absolute favourite thing.

  3. Start at a distance: Begin with another dog far enough away that your dog notices it but doesn't react negatively.

  4. Positive pairing: The moment your dog sees the other dog, immediately give the reward. Keep the treats flowing while the other dog is visible.


The Power of Positive Reinforcement

The key to counter-conditioning is creating a strong positive association. The more your pet enjoys the reward, the more effective the technique will be. Make sure to use praise and affection as well!


When to Seek Professional Help

While counter-conditioning is a wonderful tool, it requires deeper understanding and a tailored treatment plan. A professional vet behaviourist can help in several ways:


  • Expert Observation: A professional can closely observe your pet's behaviour, providing insights into the specific type of anxiety and its severity.

  • Identifying Triggers: Sometimes, the things that trigger fear aren't obvious to us. A professional can help pinpoint the exact cues that set off your pet's anxious response.

  • Customised Treatment Plan: Based on their assessment, they can create a comprehensive treatment plan. This might combine counter-conditioning with other techniques, medication if necessary, and guidance on management strategies specific to your pet's unique needs.


If your pet's fear significantly impacts their quality of life or your attempts at counter-conditioning aren't yielding sufficient progress, don't hesitate to seek our guidance. You can book an appointment with us here.

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