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3 Positive Reinforcement and Counter Conditioning

Updated: Mar 13

This is the best and most effective way to train a dog.

Continuing with the subject of positive reinforcement from the previous post. Dogs are smart, if you reward a behaviour you like, they are likely to repeat it. If you don’t reward a behaviour it is likely to become what is called ‘extinct’, meaning the dog will stop doing it.

Good rewards for behaviours we are pleased with such as sitting nicely when we ask, or carrying out any other desired action on cue, can be rewarded and reinforced with treats, especially motivating high-value treats such as sausages or chicken, but equally rewarding can be giving your dog some real love. Some dogs like to be cuddled and petted a lot, or to hear you praise them emphatically, and will do as you wish just to please you and have a good fuss. Some dogs will be just as eager to do your bidding to be allowed to have a roll or a sniff afterwards, or (especially spaniel types for example) will perform as happily for you to throw their ball as they will for a biscuit.

Rewarding a behaviour comes in different forms of course, so beware because often any form of attention, even if you’re not aware you’re doing it, can be experienced by the dog as a reward.

There are dogs who will repeat a behaviour, even an undesired or unrequested behaviour, if it pays off to their minds, such as when the dog jumps on Granny and licks her all over her face and she is squirming and squealing and failing to push him away. Even if you shout at the dog afterwards, he has had his reward and enjoyment and will continue to repeat this at every opportunity! The shouting might even serve to further excite him. Incidentally it is a great intervention to teach any alternative behaviour, such as a timely ‘sit’ or a hand target, for a suitably high-value treat instead.

Another example of an undesirable behaviour might be if your dog barks a lot and you shout at her, she could find it rewarding that she has gained your attention and continue to bark to hear your voice again. There are so many examples of dogs who have their owners eating our of their hands and running them ragged, and who are blissfully unaware of the misery and discomfort they are causing them around the house and around their neighbourhoods. So beware, what you reinforce gets repeated. If your dog is doing something that doesn't work for you, it doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't work for him, so have a think about how you could respond differently in a mutually exclusive and pleasing way. Back to that another time...

A Superficial Introduction to Counter Conditioning and Desensitisation

As for Hedgehog, he was having all sorts of behaviours and reactions reinforced, unbeknownst to his owner and this presented a particular challenge because there didn’t seem to be anything that she could offer that he might like instead. In contrast to most dogs he did not care for food, only if he was really hungry would he pick something from his bowl at home, but there was nothing he could be offered, not even fresh liver, that he would seem to relish, and especially outside, when he was hyped up and tense his head could certainly not be turned, not by food, not by play or affection, and not by any other conceivable reward.

So where many dogs, especially where lunging and barking is concerned, can be rehabilitated by counter conditioning, replacing a negative association to a ‘trigger,’ such as another dog, with a positive association, such as feeding sausage every time a dog appears to create a positive expectation, we were forced to think outside the box. First of all Hedgehog had many triggers: dogs, men, children, bikes, cars, cats, etc. It was going to take an inconceivably long time to gradually desensitise him to every trigger separately, which involves exposing the dog to the trigger, say cars, at a very low threshold, for example initially walking around a few stationary or slow-moving cars in a car park and creating a positive association with those before moving on to more cars and gently and slowly increasing the intensity, all this takes time, patience and commitment. But how to create positive associations for this dog who could be pleased by nothing? He seemed to almost relish his fits of anger.