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Exposure Therapy for Dog Behavioral Problems

Dogs are better companions with some training. Training can take on a wide range of meanings, both general and specific, and may be as simple as establishing a routine or as complex as teaching him or her to respond to your every command.

What’s Counter-Conditioning?
Counter-conditioning could also be referred to as exposure therapy or desensitization, and is a type of dog training that deals with undoing your dog's learned emotional response(s) to certain stimuli. Unlike exposure therapy or desensitization, which focuses on building tolerances through exposure, counter-conditioning aims to reframe your dog’s triggers positively in order to create brand new associations.
Some common reasons to counter-condition your dog include inappropriate elimination, barking or whining, aggression toward other dogs or people, destructive behaviors such as chewing on items or furniture in your home, and anxiety from or fear of certain types of noises.
Whether your dog displays fearful, aggressive or destructive behaviors in response to triggering circumstances or stimuli, you can use counter-conditioning and desensitization as a training tool. Counter-conditioning is powerful, humane and effective, because it uses a slow and reward-based approach to change your pet’s associations, and ultimately replaces an undesired behavior with a more desirable one, freeing your pet from anxiety, insecurity and stress.

Why Punishment Doesn't Work
Dog misbehavior can be extremely frustrating and exhausting, however, it’s important to not let that justify any punishment techniques you’re tempted to try. Punishment can suppress undesirable behaviors momentarily, however, it never addresses the core issue. Punishment in lieu of positive counter-conditioning won’t disassociate the correlations a pet has between stimuli and his or her emotional reaction; in fact, because of the additional stress involved, it can strengthen them.
Whether your dog's emotion when triggered is excited, fearful or aggressive, retraining only creates lasting results when your approach is positive. For counter-conditioning, and general training, to work it must focus on eliciting the desired response rather suppressing the behavior that's undesirable.

Steps for Counter-Conditioning
Counter-conditioning can be tricky business because emotional responses tend to become more deeply rooted the longer they have a chance to persist. That means the older your pup gets without intervention, the more challenging this endeavor might be. Additionally, if your dog has been exposed to a truly traumatizing event, his subconsciously learned response could pose more complex hurdles. Always understand your limits as a dog owner and don’t be afraid to ask for professional help. Peaking with your vet about your options is always a great place to start as they likely keep a list of referral businesses they know and trust.

Pro Tip for Proactive Counter-Conditioning
If your pet encounters a fear-inducing stimulus, reintroduce him or her to the stimulus sooner rather than later. However, as is true for all counter-conditioning, take care to re-expose your pet at sub-threshold intensity in order to prevent reinforcing the negative association to the situation.

One critical element for success when retraining your dog is the ability to remain proactive about any negative outcomes that might inadvertently occur as a result of your approach. When counter-conditioning, it’ll be important to think two steps ahead in order to avoid your training’s undoing.
Counter-conditioning is accomplished by consistently pairing triggering sights, sounds or circumstances with your dog's preferred rewards in order to change his or her attitude or emotional state toward a stimulus. It's important to start slowly and not to thrust your dog into the circumstance with full force, as this will cause an unmitigable emotional response.

1. Identify the trigger
2. Find a way to lower the trigger's intensity (the trigger should be related but not elicit a response from your dog at this stage)
3. Begin by exposing your dog to the situation that is least likely to cause a fearful reaction
4. Remember to reward your dog after any and all exposures to the stimuli, no matter how small
5. Very gradually crank up the intensity
6. Never increase intensity until your dog begins to demonstrate a positive association between stimuli and response, for example by looking at you in anticipation, wagging his tail or expressing a general attitude of relaxation

Never to expose your pet to a stressful, scary or otherwise unmanageable stimuli at full strength as part of the counter-conditioning training. Forcing your dog to endure a heightened emotional response with the expectation that he or she will eventually give up is inhumane and only introduces additional catalysts for future emotional problems.

Dog Counter-Conditioning Example 1
Your dog barks at other passing dogs when out on walks.

1. Identify where the problem begins. Does he or she start barking aggressively when another dog comes within 20 feet or are there already signs of agitation at the sight of a dog half a block away?
2. Once you understand the point at which your dog snaps, begin to make a conscious effort to keep them at a distance where you know they’re not yet emotionally volatile.
3. Take time to take them to areas frequented by other dogs, but where you're able to keep as much distance as you need; when out on walks, be cognizant of any potential triggers.
4. Always maintain a positive atmosphere during these sessions. This includes rewarding (with treats, toys or pets) as well as maintaining a relaxed hold on your leash.
5. When your dog no longer pays any attention to other dogs that are just outside his trigger zone, start to increase the intensity of your training by narrowing the gap between yourself and other dogs.
6. Just as you did at the beginning of the training, you'll want to pay careful attention to where your dog's line is. The idea of counter-conditioning isn't to get a reaction and then try to mitigate it, the idea is to slowly create an increased tolerance to the stimulus by covertly sneaking it into your dog's comfort zone.

Dog Counter-Conditioning Example 2
Your dog is fearful of fireworks, which creates stress for you both and puts them at a higher risk for escaping by slipping a collar or running out a cracked door.

1. If your dog has a long history of being afraid of fireworks, he or she may begin to become fearful even at distant sounds -perhaps even those that are unrelated. Therefore, it's very important to assess how your dog's negative response starts. Whether it's simply hyper-alertness or downright panic, know all of the signs before beginning.
2. Because fireworks only happen a few times a year, you'll be able to create a controlled environment that'll allow you plenty of time to counter-condition. We recommend starting your training several months before a holiday event.
3. Whether you use YouTube, a DVD or a prior recording, begin slowly by playing the sounds at a volume at which your dog exhibits absolutely no response. (If your dog is also afraid of the visual aspect of the fireworks, it's worth thinking about how to recreate these visual effects on both a mild and moderate-severe level.)
4. If your dog is food motivated, always use treats he loves to reward him during this process. A training treat is a great option as it is highly palatable and contains under 10 calories per piece. 5. Increase the intensity of your fireworks simulation in small increments and only as long as your dog continues to remain relaxed.
6. The more often you practice and the more patient and consistent you remain, the more successful your counter-conditioning training will be. Remember to go slow, and never hesitate to take a step back if things become a bit sticky.

Dog Counter-Conditioning Example 3
Your dog chews on items or furniture in your home when you're away or not paying close attention.

1. When it comes to chewing, we're generally dealing with the symptom of a bigger issue. If your dog is chewing, he or she is likely bored or anxious, and it's important for you to be able to understand where the behavior is originating before you begin any counter-conditioning training.
2. When setting up your environment for training, it'll be important to put your focus into the core emotion your dog is experiencing, rather than the chewing he or she is exhibiting. In addition to incorporating counter-conditioning to help your dog overcome his boredom or anxiety, we recommend using a multi-strategic approach that focuses on mitigating behavioral problems proactively and addressing any potential anxiety with a targeted approach.
3. If your dog has anxiety about being left at home, he or she will most often destroy items in your home when you are away. The counter-conditioning aspect to approaching the anxiety that ultimately leads to chewing will incorporate the same gentle and reward-based methods we've outlined above. Your dog will need to re-learn the associations he makes between your absence (being alone) and bad things happening (anxiety), and that will take time.
If you think your dog is chewing because he’s bored and requires more stimulation, we recommend incorporating more exercise and more mentally stimulating activities into his or her routine.
4. In addition to keeping your dog stimulated, exercised and entertained, begin to use counter-conditioning to grow the span of time between your departure and your return, always using treats as a motivator. A Kong filled with peanut butter or cheese is an excellent way to keep your pet busy, but take care when setting your expectations. Just because your dog could remain entertained with his Kong for 30 minutes, doesn't mean his anxiety about your absence won't win out first.
The counter-conditioning approach to chewing is time-consuming, but staying consistent is well worth it. We recommend considering taking some vacation time off to dive into training, or looking into daytime boarding centers that place emphasis on interaction and play rather than on kennel time.
5. Anxiety is a complicated issue to tackle and training will take time. Remember to take things slowly so that your dog's progression is consistent.
6. Depending on where the anxiety originates, you may want to consider enlisting the help of a professional or speaking to your veterinarian about prescription medications that can ease your dog's stress level to a point where training becomes possible for you both.

Examples of Mental Stimulating Exercises & Activities for Your Dog

  • nosework
  • swimming
  • hide and seek
  • the shell game
  • learn new tricks
  • fetch toys by name
  • agility coursework
  • practice learned tricks
  • vary up your walking routes
  • enroll in a pet therapy program
  • let your dog sniff around on walks
  • talk to your dog; engage more personally
  • take your dog with you on errands, if it's safe