Helping a dog with Reactive Behaviours – Counter Conditioning and Desensitisation Explained

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Helping a dog with Reactive Behaviours – Counter Conditioning and Desensitisation Explained

Helping a dog with Reactive Behaviours – Counter Conditioning and Desensitisation Explained

Reactive Behaviour is rooted in fear.  When something scares a dog, the ‘I am scared’ message goes straight to the ancient part of the brain that deals with the ‘fight or flight’ response.  It bypasses any part of the brain that is involved in thinking things through, goes straight to the ancient hindbrain and the body becomes flooded with the fear response hormones.  The response is a ‘trigger’ response; a knee jerk reaction so to speak.  It also turns off everything else so, for example, a fearful or stressed dog will not eat and a dog in a state of fear/stress will be unable to respond to treats.  They will appear ‘deaf’.   

Reactive Behaviour can be defined as a maladaptive fear response. Usually the fight or flight response experienced when faced with a genuine danger is a short-term proportionate reaction. This is a normal response and once the danger has passed the dog can come back down from that state quite easily.  In reactivity behaviours this response is triggered by something that is not an immediate and genuine risk and the response is heightened and exaggerated.

In addition, the response can become both more severe and prolonged than with a ‘normal’ fear response and the dog might begin to react to things associated with the initial trigger (perhaps things that were around when they first became scared of that trigger) or generalise it to similar objects, animals, situations etc.  They may also begin to react to sounds, sights, smells etc that predict something that they have become fearful of.

Most usually, this maladaptive fear response is labelled as reactive behaviour when the fight part of the fear response is displayed by the dog. However, the fight or flight response can actually be displayed as one of five Fs – these are Fight, Flight, Fool around (or fidget), Fornicate (humping) and Freeze/Faint (actual fainting is rare but in cases of extreme fear it can happen).

It takes at least 48 hours for the stress hormones to return to a normal state after a ‘fearful’ or stressful experience.  However, if stress continues or additional stressful experiences occur (trigger stacking – see ‘stress bucket’ infographic) then not only can the dog become more sensitive to triggers and be likely to react to things that would not normally be an issue, but the stress hormones will take longer to return to normal once triggers are removed. This can be harmful not only to the dog’s mental wellbeing and behaviour but also to their physical health.

Counter Conditioning is the process of changing the association a dog has with a particular trigger from a negative one to a positive one.  The aim is the change the emotion behind the reactivity and therefore change the response. The dog comes to associate the ‘thing’ (whatever the trigger may be) with good things happening – thus creating a new neural pathway.  The more the pathway is repeated and reinforced the stronger it becomes so that over time the dog comes to expect good stuff to happen when they see that ‘thing’ and get a good feeling rather than a negative one; we are teaching them to use their forebrain, the thinking part of their brain.

It is important to carry out counter conditioning at a distance the dog feels comfortable at.  Once a dog tips over the threshold of what they can cope with they will be reacting and unable to respond (they will not be able to hear you and they will not take even the yummiest treats).  For this it is important to watch the dog’s body language to ensure they are not stressed.  Then, at this safe distance, start to provide good stuff (this would usually be high value, yummy smelly treats) as soon as the dog sees the trigger (say another dog for example) and continue to keep this good stuff coming until the dog is out of sight.

If the trigger is unknown dogs for example, a good way to do this is to choose a spot (such as a view of a park with dogs in it) where the dog can be sure to be kept at a distance they can cope whilst having the opportunity to see the dogs then you pair this with treats. It’s important to make sure your dog sees the trigger before you give them that first treat and keep those treats coming whilst the trigger is in sight.  The dog will begin to associate the trigger with the good stuff (the yummy treats) and will begin to look to you for them to start when they see the trigger.  So not only are we changing the association from a negative one to a positive one, we are also changing the behaviour; the dog is responding (rather than reacting) by choosing to look to you.

Desensitisation is often carried out alongside counter conditioning but can also be done on its own (it depends upon the trigger you are working on really).  It involves exposing the dog to the trigger that worries them at a distance/volume/intensity they can cope with; close enough (or loud enough etc) that the dog knows it is there but far enough away (quiet enough etc) that they show no signs of discomfort, anxiety or stress.

It is important for the dog to be able to choose to look at the trigger from a distance they are comfortable with.  A person scared of spiders might be able to cope with one being the other side of the room as long as they were able to keep a check on it and know whether it had moved or got any closer for example.  However, if they were forced to look the other way, even though they were initially able to cope with the spider being that far away from them, their anxiety level would actually be likely to rise as they would not know what the spider was doing and whether it had moved; this is the same with dogs and their triggers too.  This is why I find it very important to try to ensure dog guardians understand that counter conditioning and desensitisation are not the same as distraction.  We are not trying to stop the dog from seeing the trigger by shoving food under their nose.

This is repeated and gradually the distance between the dog and the trigger is reduced – constantly watching their body language to ensure that they are still comfortable with it.  If the dog starts to show signs of stress and anxiety, then the distance has been reduced too fast and needs to be increased again.  If the trigger is something that isn’t seen, like a sound or even a smell, desensitisation is done by first exposing the dog to the trigger at a low level that they can cope with and then the volume/strength (depending on what it is) is gradually increased.  It is important that the dog does not feel forced to stay near the sound or smell if they do not want to as to feel trapped or forced could actually create anxiety at a level/distance/strength (as appropriate) that they could otherwise cope with.

Thus, for example with a dog who has learned to be overly reactive at the sight of another dog, you would start combine pairing the sight of the dog with something wonderful (yummy, smelly high value treats) starting at a distance the dog can cope with, to change the emotional response from a negative (fear) feeling to a good feeling and also gradually decrease the distance between the dog and another dog, constantly watching the dog’s body language to ensure that they were still comfortable with it.

This article covers just one part of the subject and is intended to help explain some of the thinking behind behaviour plans put in place to help dogs who exhibit reactive behaviours.  It does not constitute a full behaviour modification plan.  If you have a dog who needs help with these issues, please enlist the help of a qualified behaviourist who will be able to assess your dog fully, make recommendations and put a plan in place to help you to help your dog. Here at Hounds First we are always happy to point you in the direction of appropriately qualified behaviourists in your area.