Using desensitization and counter-conditioning, Maisy has learned to be
comfortable in the presence of other dogs- even ones she doesn't know!
In my last post on learning theory, I discussed classical conditioning, which is the process of creating automatic physical or emotional reactions to a stimulus. Sometimes those associations are useful and desirable, and sometimes they’re not, like when a dog associates the presence of children (or other dogs or bicycles or balloons or whatever) with something scary. When this happens a dog might shut down in fear or behave “reactively” or aggressively. Although it is unfortunate when this happens, the good news is that we can change these responses through two complementary processes called desensitization and counter-conditioning.
In the post on classical conditioning, I discussed the Little Albert experiment, in which a psychologist was able to condition a child to be afraid of fuzzy white objects. His student, Mary Cover Jones, began experimenting with the reverse, and was able to use classical conditioning to reduce fears. Joseph Wolpe expanded upon her work following World War II. Reasoning that if most behavior is learned, it can also be unlearned, he developed a systematic approach for reducing undesirable conditioned responses called desensitization.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning are like two sides of the same coin: they are distinct from one another, but work best when paired with the other. They are used when we want to change the physical or emotional association a dog has already made with something.
Desensitization is the process through which we weaken the previously learned association. This is done by gradually exposing the dog to low levels of the stimulus without provoking the unwanted emotion or reaction. Counter-conditioning is a form of classical conditioning which changes the pre-existing association. While classical conditioning can happen quickly- sometimes in just a single trial- counter-conditioning often takes much longer. However, you can reduce the amount of time if you are careful to keep your dog sub-threshold, which is what happens during desensitization. Therefore, desensitization and counter-conditioning need to go together to both weaken the undesired response and then program in the desired one.
Okay, so let’s say your dog has created an association that you want to change. Perhaps he’s fearful like my dog and barks or growls or lunges at Scary Things. One thing Maisy will do this toward is people riding bikes. Although there is nothing inherently scary about bikes, the behavior happens because she has formed an association that says “bikes are scary!”and reacts automatically.
In order to stop the behavior, we need to teach the dog that bikes are not scary. We’ll do this through desensitization. However, if we don’t give the dog any information on how he ought to feel about the scary stuff instead, it’s likely he’ll “re-sensitize” to it. This means that we need to take our training a step further, and teach the dog that bikes are predictors of awesomeness. This will happen through counter-conditioning.
Start by making a plan. Identify as many of the things that triggers the undesirable association as possible. Pay attention to the variables for each trigger, too: is it all bikes? Only ones ridden by children? Or maybe men? Does the speed of the bike make a difference? Or maybe the distance?
Next, learn to read your dog’s threshold- that is, the point at which he reacts. When you begin training, you want to find the "sweet spot:" the point at which your dog notices the trigger, but doesn’t react negatively. He should be able to split his attention between you and the trigger. If you can’t get his attention, you’re too close to his threshold. If he doesn’t pay attention to the trigger at all, you’re too far away.
Although we typically think of thresholds in terms of distance, duration and intensity matters, too. If you can’t change your proximity to the trigger, try lowering the intensity. Use visual barriers and sound-dampening devices. Have cyclists move slower, seek out older children rather than younger ones, or whatever makes sense given your dog’s responses.
Now you’re ready to train. Take your dog somewhere that you can expose him to one trigger only and find the “sweet spot.” Now, create a new association by pairing the trigger with something awesome. The easiest way to do this is with really yummy food. Think chicken or hot dogs or whatever your dog likes best. As long as the trigger is present, feed your dog continuously. Stop feeding when the trigger goes away.
This will take time- Pat Miller recommends working with the same trigger and intensity for at least 20 minutes, or until your dog sees the trigger and says, “Yay! Where’s my chicken?”- whichever is longer. Then you can increase the intensity (whether that’s by moving closer, having the cyclist go faster, or getting more children to hang around) and repeat the process. Increase the intensity in very small amounts. If do too much too soon, you will undo you hard work and possibly even make things worse. Be very careful to stay in the "sweet spot" during all stages.
This process is time- and labor-intensive, but the more work you put in, the stronger the new association will become. I promise, it’s worth the effort. If you aren’t getting the “yay!” effect, I highly recommend consulting with a skilled trainer. A good trainer can help you figure out what’s going on with you and your dog.
In addition to the links in this post, you may find the following websites interesting:
Patricia McConnell on counter-conditioning: is it classical or operant?
This site does a great job of explaining how to create a systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning program.
Although designed for human use, this site does a nice job of breaking down the “anxiety hierarchy” when creating a desensitization plan. It may also have applications for those of us with ring nerves!