Counterconditioning is a staple of behavior change.

In a nutshell, it means associating something that elicits positive emotions, like cookies, with something that elicits negative emotions, like a monster! That monster might bring up a variety of emotions from fear to anger, but the thing that matters here is that we would like to change that negative emotion to a more positive one, such as happiness.  We would like the dog to become happy in the presence of the monster rather than angry or fearful. Of course, the dog defines what a monster is, and the dog decides if they feel better, worse, or the same in the presence of said monster.

If you are counterconditioning then as soon as your dog sees a monster you start feeding them cookies, so your dog says “Hey! I like monsters showing up! One side of me feels fearful, but the other side of my brain starts to feel how the presence of the monster causes cookies, and I like cookies.”  Eventually, your dog should begin to feel happiness in the presence of monsters.  That would be counterconditioning at its finest, if somewhat simplified.    It takes place at the level of classical conditioning, because the dog does not even need to be aware of the process for it to be happening.

And Distraction Food?

That’s when you show your dog food when monsters show up and that causes your dog to ignore the monster temporarily while they eat the yummy food.  They aren’t dealing with the emotional effects of the presence of the monster at all – they are distracted.

That is not the same as counterconditioning, because counterconditioning should not distract the dog from the monster. It should PAIR the monster with the good thing.

So far so good. Now let’s consider distraction training.

What is distraction training? Teaching a dog to perform a behavior in the presence of something which may cause an alternative reaction.   For example, your dog sees a monster.  Now instead of going towards the monster or barking or it or pulling on the leash to play with it, your dog performs an alternative behavior which earns them a cookie.

If you are doing distraction training, then rather than feeding the dog cookies simply while in the presence of the monster and training on the level of classical conditioning (or simply distraction), you reward an incompatible behavior to looking at the monster –  like looking at you!  Or performing a sit.   Eventually, the sight of the other monster may well cause the dog to perform without a cue at all. In that case it is now cued by the situation. Which is awesome! It simplifies our lives.

Distraction training requires a degree of conscious thought and is called operant conditioning.   It’s also worth noting that anytime you are doing operant conditioning then classical conditioning is coming along for the ride.

Counterconditioning assumes that the dog was sufficiently aware of the monster, and sufficiently enthusiastic about the alternatives like food, that it changed their emotional reaction to it. You have not counter conditioned anything if you have not changed the dog’s emotional state. BUT It also assumes that the dogs worry about the monster is at a low enough level that the dog is not building anxiety because if the dog is building anxiety in the presence of the monster, even while eating, you will not get the emotional change you are hoping for.   So your dog could be merrily munching down on cookies while stewing inside. That is not good.

Distraction food or distraction training, on the other hand, can take place perfectly well whether or not you have changed the dog’s underlying emotional state.  And since all of training is having an effect on the dogs emotional state, you may well be doing counterconditioning when you think you’re doing distraction food or training,  and you may be doing distraction food or training when you think you are doing counterconditioning.

it is not a concern if you think you are doing distraction food or training and a huge dose of counterconditioning is coming along for the ride.  If you happen to make your dog feel better about the monster one way or the other, hey, awesome!  But what if you think you are primarily counterconditioning but really you are doing distraction food or training? Now we have a problem.

The reason we have a problem is that your dog’s feelings cause behavior, and if your dog’s feelings are not improving then your dog’s behavior will not improve once you are no longer either feeding or cuing (or the environment is cuing) the behavior.  Yes, your dog’s ability to look at you, or perform for you, may improve over time especially in the presence of monsters when a cookie or trained cue (followed up by a cookie) is distracting them. But that does not mean that the dog is actually feeling better about the monster.

In my opinion, a whole lot of people think they are doing primarily counterconditioning when they are really doing primarily distraction work with a tiny bit of counterconditioning on the side. As a result, some people are working on their counterconditioning for months and years with relatively little or even no progress.  As soon as the cookies are gone or the monster gets closer, the dog’s emotional state, as evidenced by observable behavior, degrades once again.

If you aren’t changing your dog’s emotional state then you are not counterconditioning. Yes, your dog’s behavior might be improving because of the distraction training but you are not changing their underlying feelings about the trigger.   Which means that as soon as you are no longer in a controlled set up where you are managing their behavior, the dogs emotions will drive their natural behavior – often in directions you don’t particularly want to see.

I could write another 20 blogs on why this is problematic, and how we have gotten to this place, but in this one already-too-long blog all I’m going to say is this…

Pay attention. If you have been working on counterconditioning for months or years and your dog is not feeling pretty darned good when no food is present then ask yourself if you are actually doing any counterconditioning at all.  Personally, I think more often than not the food actually distracts the dog from the trigger rather than conditioning it.

For basic behavior work, I would much prefer that most people do desensitization rather than counterconditioning, unless they can control their set-ups very tightly (for example, inanimate objects where a systematic plan can be easily created and implemented), and/or have a good deal of experience with dog training.

To do desensitization well, your primary weapon is going to be distance.   You’ll need to pay attention to your dog’s reactions because you won’t have food to distract your dog.   If your dog look more than very mildly interested or concerned, you’re too close. Of course, because you are not using food to distract them, you will probably be able to figure this distance thing out! Add a few hot dogs and you can get twice as close – which is exactly how people get in to this mess of counterconditioning that isn’t really counterconditioning.

Do you see the problem?

And if you are an instructor to other students and they seem to be progressing unbelievably slowly or not at all? Ask yourself if your students have the necessary skills to correctly apply counterconditioning. Ask yourself if the food is so important to the dog that it distracts them from the trigger rather than conditioning them to it. Ask yourself if food is causing your students to put their dogs in situations that they cannot handle, because the dog masks their emotions when the food is so powerful a distractor.

And as you consider these things, if you realize that maybe you’re on the wrong track, then consider desensitization without counterconditioning as a primary tool, especially when working with more novice clients.

Edit Sept 6th, 2019:  Due to popular request, Denise has combined her three webinars that address reactivity into a class for self-study at FDSA. If you would like to learn more about handling reactivity and over arousal without using food or counterconditioning, please consider this class (click the title to learn more and enroll):

EW100: Reducing Overarousal and Reactivity via the Circle Method of Leash Walking: