(Counter) Conditioning

Early on, Lyra was scared by particular sounds. Her fear of some triggers has faded, but others remain. It’s like a deep etching in her brain. My job is to try to erase the negative response; ideally, to replace it with a positive one. The problem is complex. Because of her strong reaction to traffic sounds, it was not easy to give her happy experiences out in the world — with strangers, especially — when she was a young pup. She continues to be anxious if strangers reach for her, and can be wary of handling. The goal is to create a positive conditioned emotional response (+CER).

My main tools are counter-conditioning (cc) and desensitization (ds). CC is where you change the dog’s emotional response to a trigger (from bad to good); DS is where you expose the dog to a trigger, at a level where the dog feels safe, to enable the dog to “practise” calm behaviour in its presence. If you work on both together, the goal is to help the dog feel safe at shorter and shorter distances from the trigger. (When I use the word “distance” by the way, I often mean “volume”, since most of Lyra’s triggers involve a sound element, but I can also mean quantity. There are many ways to achieve distance.)

[nb. CC can also mean classical conditioning, where the initial response is neutral and you want to build a good association. I use classical conditioning for tools where there is no prior fearful response.]

Use Food: I used to think that Lyra had “low food drive” because the smallest thing can tear her focus away from a treat. It doesn’t have to be a scary thing; it can be anything that interests her. My thinking has changed. I now think of her as easily aroused by her environment. In boring rooms, when we train, she gets excited about her treat. So, in order for Lyra to build a strong association between treat and thing/behaviour, the environment has to be dull. Food is a powerful tool in creating a reinforcement history. E.g., I first worked on her recall in a dull setting. I continue give her food every time she comes on cue, and often when she simply “checks in” with me. Because of this strong reinforcement history, she will usually stop and come back to me on cue even when aroused; even if she prefers (as I know she does) chasing a swallow to eating a piece of cheese.

I read a great blog on how reinforcement history works: on a horse trainer site, Spellbound.

Two excellent blog posts on conditioning: one by Eileen Anderson and the other by Randi Rossman.

Areas of work

  • Busy streets: e.g., the walk to the vet.
  • Handling: e.g., vet exam, nail trim, tooth brushing.
  • Car journeys
  • People. While she adores some people, and is fine in the company of most strangers, she reacts when startled and often ducks away if someone reaches for her.
  • Bus and truck sounds: especially, the rev up or down of the engine and air brakes.

Counter-conditioning Lyra to car travel