Misconceptions of Counterconditioning Leash Reactive Dogs

Jun 29, 2015 | Animal Behavior, Learning Theory, Training

Misconception #1 – Feeding a dog when they are barking or fearful reinforces the fear.
Absolutely not true. You can only cause more fear by implementing more fear or pain. Fear trumps food, so if the dog is taking the food, they are not that fearful.

The food is not the focus of the on leash event; the impending, approaching or sudden stimulus is the focus. This is not like a food bowl that gets kicked repeatedly or a dog that is attacked by other dogs over food, and the dog starts to associate the food as a fearful part of the chain and stops eating. Could food be associated with fear with on leash counterconditioning, sure if the handler starts to scold the dog or cause the dog some form of fear and pain and then tries to pad the event with food, in that case it could. If the dog is already fearful of traffic, fearful or frustrated by dogs, humans or in general has stress on leash, the food will not have a negative association unless it’s an extreme case and the humans is being abusive.

Obviously the handler wants to pay the dog while the dog is under threshold upon the first orientation of the stimulus, but if the dog is paid after a bark or lunge the food is not reinforcing that emotion, and not necessarily that behavior or physical movement, the act of barking and lunging et. al. is the reinforcer at that stage. The behavior of barking or lunging can be ameliorated by better distance; the food is acting as a “pad” and a stress gauge at the point when the dog is over threshold.

What needs to be determined is the emotional component of the dog, are they fearful or frustrated? This is a huge factor in determining what is occurring with the dogs associations. It is also a good window in to what is the main reinforcer and how to rearrange the events.

The more important of the two learning paradigms with learning is the emotional, the associative, as we say “Pavlov is always on our shoulder,” so feeding now and then after the dog reacts is not reinforcing the reactivity, what is reinforcing the reactivity, be it barking or lunging of some kind is the proximity to the stimulus. Furthermore, what is that stimulus and how the dog associates to it will be crucial for determining the protocols for your counterconditioning.

Barking and lunging to some extent can actually help the process as that releases stress for the dog, Of course we do not want the dog to bark and lunge chronically or to the point of being overly stressed, but just as the dog that barks at a sound out side the home and then is asked to “leave it” and is paid a food reward when they stop barking after they are cued, that dog will bark a few times then look for a food reward as opposed to keeping the barking going, as the food will trump that barking as the reinforcer if the human is consistent and then redirects the dog onto something else. On leash a “touch” for hand targeting is a great way to get the dog away from the stimulus or the event and redirect him to a better distance.

The dog may bark once or twice, which is acceptable, but eventually the dog will learn that leaving the stimulus and disengaging is more reinforcing as we can always trump peripheral stimulus and event main event stimulus with high value food, scent and the contiguous sequences of proper counterconditioning.

If the dog is scolded or made to feel pain and they stop behaviors, then that stoppage of barking is being maintained with negative reinforcement, the threat of a punisher, and that will elicit negative associations to the context, and that is stressful. Punishments or flooding in the “on leash” context will be making the antecedents of the sequence fearful, thus in time, as the environment always adds up at some point to be “too much”, spontaneous recovery will kick in, and the dog will react or shut down, and have less chance of a fast bounce back, as they will not have been processing stress hormones (glucocorticoids) efficiently through conditioning and training.

Don’t sweat the reactivity, pay through it, or don’t. Just stay more aware and get better distances the next time. In realty it is the distance that keeps the dog under threshold not necessarily the food reward in total, it is both proper distances and high value food rewards coupled with efficiently orchestrated sequences and contiguous reinforcements that gets the job done. All dogs will have their own signature disengagement pathologies that are based on the parameters of the event. Just like they develop reactivity pathologies, dogs develop disengagement pathologies, and the better you understand them the easier time you’ll have counterconditioning.

Hebbian Theory – Introduced by Donald Hebb in 1949. The theory attempts to explain associative or Hebbian learning, in which simultaneous activation of cells leads to pronounced increases in synaptic strength between those cells, and provides a biological basis for error-less learning methods for education and memory rehabilitation.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky explains when there is “conflict” the organism, human, dog et al, is determining what to do and the Pre Fontal Cortex (significant role in goal-directed behavior) and the Amygdala (processing fearful stimuli) are sending information back and forth at rapid speeds, attempting to figure out the proper response. By counterconditioning with high value food and implementing distance, the dog is helped tremendously in regards to “making better decisions” in the face to stress. Thus building upon Hebbian Theory. The theory is often summarized by Carla Shatz’s phrase: “Cells that fire together, wire together”.

Cognitively it is not fully possible to “reinforce fear” with legitimate reductions in the intensity of the fearful stimulus, i.e. working to reduce the intensity of the fear or frustrations each time, unless the dog is flooded repeatedly and there are no trials that result in the dog staying under threshold, but then that is not legitimate nor is it effective in reducing fear. No matter it is not the food causing a “reward” for fear.

Misconception #2 – Mistaking fear for frustration.
Far too many people observe a dog reacting at something and they automatically assume that the dog is fearful. The way to determine if it is fears or frustrations the dog is experiencing, take an accurate history with the stimulus and the environmental contingencies of distances, as there are usually a few varying degrees of distance and it’s associations, and log the appearance duration of the exposure, that has to be factored in. How long does the stimuli hang around typically? If possible, find out what is the distance and duration upon first exposure that the dog will stay under threshold? That is a good gauge for determining how much time you have before you reinforce with food or add distance.

Obviously a sudden appearance by a stimulus that startles the dog is causing the dog fear. However, what about a well socialized dog that reacts at other dogs when on leash, yet the dog has no bite history, years of off leash play without incidents, regular dog friends and dozens of leash greetings that go very well, yet the dog barks at other dogs when on leash when they cannot greet and even when they can greet, the dog barks. That dog would be considered frustrated not fearful, yet many people would label the dog fearful.

This misinterpretation of the dog’s reactivity could eventually hamper the dogs socializing or the dog’s humans may be persuaded to peruse harsh methods to stop the barking as many people think the “barking is the problem”, when it’s not. The problem is the dog’s associative value to the stimuli and the event/context. That has to be a positive one, or at least we are working toward it to be, even if there’s some stress for the dog. Humans that allow some leeway to the dog’s barking do much better in terms of results and eventually reducing the dog’s stress to acceptable levels.

Fear is not an easy thing to spot for many people. Dog walks are intrinsically distracting for humans and canines. Many dogs “tough it out”, then one day explode, as the whole time they were not barking, or maybe barked but were “shushed”, they were still fearful. This is why I advise to pay for sub criteria and pad events as much as possible with either reassurances or food rewards.

Misconception #3 – Do Enough Counterconditioning Then One Day The Dog Will Never Be Fearful or React On Leash.
Not true. There can be major gains made, tremendous results achieved, Olympian reductions in fear, and one day when the conditions are all lined up to go against all the hard work, the dog may react at something or perhaps the stimulus you worked so diligently to countercondition a new response to will present in a new way or in a novel environment and that causes the dog to go over threshold. It is ok. Besides perfection is a lie. If you are doing the work properly and you achieve 95% reliability at some point, you and the dog are doing more than fine, and way above averages that most people have with their “reactive dog” that do not do any work or half ass it to reduce fear or frustrations for dogs when they are on leash. Think process not “results” and the results will come.

Misconception #4 – You don’t need to mark and pay just use cues.
This is one of the main reasons why people fail to obtain results. They ask the dog for too much behavior too soon and are not prepared to reinforce with equal reward value for the “work”. In the face of fearful stimuli especially, the dog needs to do the least amount of work, so drop criteria. This is why as soon as the dog see’s or hears the stimulus and the handler marks “YES” and pays the dog a high value food reward the dog is simply reinforced for orienting. Catch enough of those “orientation moments” and the dog many times, distances in our favor of course, stays put, and waits for more reinforcement. Remember one of the F’s the dog has on leash in spades is “freeze”, now as “fight” does not always mean to the death “freeze” does not always connote fear to the point of freezing. Remember in the case of prey many dogs freeze and wait as part of their stalk sequences.

With enough properly implemented counterconditioning many dogs will eventually “jump the marker”, as the dog only to orient then get reinforcement. By marking and paying for simple orientations you’re reinforcing a whole suite of subtle and overt behaviors that many times are exactly what we’d like more of, such as stopping, waiting, checking in.

One of the main ways people mess up counterconditioning, especially when it comes to dogs needing counterconditioning to other dogs, is they “ reactive dog sits and dogs pass by”. This is usually some sort of “leadership” mumbo jumbo and lots of “hey aght” routines as they work to keep the dog from reacting, and it usually fails 99% of time.

As was detailed in the research of Mark E. Bouton in his paper Context and Behavioral Processes In Extinction, when an animal experiences a “context change” they have a “stop & think” function that acts as a comparator of the stimulus package, as no stimulus on leash comes without “passengers”. Stimuli are package deals, dogs have humans, skateboards have humans, and cars have loud sounds. It’s never just one thing you are conditioning.

This “stop & think” function occurs in the Septo-Hippocampal System (Lindsay Vol. 1 2000), this region of the brain deals with conflict, and dogs are determining if they are safe unsafe or neutral. At this start of the event when the dog is determining what is occurring, when this decision-making is happening, they have the most amount of anticipation, which also releases the most amount of dopamine. This is when dogs are learning most and best, during anticipation. Dr. Robert Sapolsky, illustrates in The Dopamine Jackpot “the anticipation phase of acquisition is the most rewarding” not the “payoff”.

Thus, eventually if humans have a good awareness and proper distances and reward efficiently, with contiguous efficacy, the stimulus can then become the cue for disengagements as it predicts a new outcome from the counterconditioning. When the stimulus has been conditioning to elicit a disengage for the dog, then I suggest issuing some disengagement cues such as “leave it” or “touch” a hand targeting cue.

If you just use cues the dog may have too much to think through in the face of a sudden context change such as a barking dog or a loud truck. When you simply mark “YES” and pay the dog a high value food reward, the dog is learning that sudden changes equal high value food and or distances that help reduce stress, and that increases learning.

Misconception #5 the dog is fine, he is not reacting other then looking at stuff.
Sadly many dogs are fearful, stressed or frustrated and displaying it in subtle ways until the environmental conditions or the history of feeling stressed has built up to cause reactivity behaviors such as barking or lunging, as the dog cannot deal with the stress any longer. Puppies and adolescent dogs are prone to this silent stress.

Remember, dogs on leash are intrinsically stressed to some degree, as they cannot enlist the flight response, they really only have freeze and fight, i.e. react or stay put.

Puppies and adolescent dogs are most prone to this misconception, as they are young, a bit fearful due to natural fear periods, making many puppies withdrawn and reticent in the face of new or novel stimuli due to the three fear periods that are intrinsically imbued into their development. This is an even more tangible reason to implement counterconditioning like a machine for anything that gets their attention, with puppies and adolescent dogs.

When the dog is a bit older and either in the middle of adolescence or at the tail end of their “teen years” or around the start of social maturity roughly at ages 2- 3, and the dog starts reacting at traffic, humans, other dogs, due to a history of not being reinforced for orienting to sudden and or not so sudden changes in the environment when they were stressed as a young dog it is tragic, as they could have been spared this stress had their humans simply been taught about proper counterconditioning, carried food and stayed aware.

Remember when the environment changes the dog is deciding if they are safe, unsafe or neural. The amygdala, which is the main region of the brain the processes fear, is one synapse away form the olfactory system, which is the strongest part of the dog’s associative tool kit. Stimulus information does not have to travel too far to be considered fearful, the speed with which stimuli is associated as ”unsafe” is in the category of “in the blink of an eye”, and the likelihood is most sudden stimuli is going to initially have an apprehension associated with it, as animals are intrinsically concerned when changes occur, especially changes that occur quickly outdoors when they are trapped on leash. Most stimuli that appears when dogs are on leash does not cause the dog actual pain, they’re just feeling fear or stress by the stimulus as it enters the environment and leaves the environment. In this time frame, the events that are counterconditioned for the puppies and adolescent dogs are very lucky, the humans are building a foundation of future behavioral insurance that the dog will at the very least know that when changes occur the humans help them through it so they feel safer. All animals want first to gain control over their environment, then proceed, and when humans work to that end things typically go well most of the time.

Dr. Susan Friedman says “great trainers pay for sub criteria”. This is especially true of leash reactive dogs, or dogs that have fear when on leash. Think about it, when you pay for scent and sound, the sight of the stimulus will be less intense provided the distance is appropriate and the duration is not too long.

Sub criteria would be dog barks and scents of dogs, while the sight of dogs would be the main criteria. Traffic is different as the sounds may be the main criteria and the sights not so salient; it all depends on the dog and the parameters and the type of traffic.

A human stimulus also has many variables. The best thing to do is film and then review and figure out what exactly the dog is orienting to first and get your criteria in order.

You can also pay for the context of being on leash, and help the dog settle, meaning pay the dog for simple behaviors such as “look” or simply marking “YES” and paying the dog for very subtle stimuli that the dog orients to, such as dog tags jingling or a far off motorcycle, a human down the street at a distance that is guaranteed to have an under threshold response. All this helps when a “main event” occurs.

Remember all dogs will react at something if the conditions are right, by paying for low level orientations and asking for simple behavioral for disengagements the dog is learning that these stimulus occurrences equal reinforcing sequences.

Misconception #6 all that is needed is distance and allowing the dog to decide what to do.
False. Dogs make poor decisions all the time. In the case of prey and young dogs or dogs that have had zero conditioning they will usually decide to lunge or attempt to chase before their prey stalk sequences have been fully developed. It the case of dogs reacting at other dogs the dog may decide that barking, even as greater distances are implemented is reinforcing, and that is where a leave it – touch chain can really help thus teaching the dog not to bark by conditioning an alternate behavior chain.

In the case of dogs that need counterconditioning to other dogs, many times dogs will work to decrease distance due to the genetic predispositions to want to “check out” other dogs, and that “check out” may mean they want to approach that dog and that is not a good idea. Again, this is where a simple mark and pay routine can really make an impact on the dog. In that initial few seconds when the dog has not moved but oriented you are also marking and paying simultaneously paying for the dog staying and watching the other dog. Which may or may not be what is needed, that depends on which way the dog is approaching, towards to or away from you.

Then once you need or want disengagement you can ask for a “leave it – touch” combo and disengage the dog.

Sure some dogs will decide to retreat, and those dogs can also have a food reward in the mix to increase that behavior. However when dogs are reacting towards stimuli or have a propensity to become stressed, obtain distances for the dog ahead of time buy way of sequential training, i.e. stay aware and get out of their, teach a retreat cue, and be ready to mark and pay the dog for anything that remotely has them orienting and not attending to gathering scents, This way the dog is being padded and paid for stimuli.

Misconception #7 the dog is not food motivated or the dog is a “picky eater”.  All dogs are motivated by food; or else they die. The issue is; fear trumps food. Dogs do not have the cognitive ability to formulate a moral imperative to disobey or be spiteful or be a “picky eater”, all those are human labels and have no real insight as to why a dog may not want food in the face of fear, frustrations, stress or excitement. It’s the food value many times, not the dog. Food is akin to money, payment, and in the game of counterconditioning a dog that has stress may not go for the usual pay scale. In all cases where the dog was not so stressed or fearful that they were shutting down and wanting to escape, I have been able to find some food for the dog that has had a past of not wanting food on a leash walk when they are met with stimuli for counterconditioning.

When dogs are stressed they stop eating and it is usually this reason that the dog is not taking the food when training leash reactive dogs.

Many times I was presented with a dog labeled as “not food motivated” and once the dog was given novel high value food, at appropriate distances, and in a contiguous fashion, the dog took the food and gladly, the people were amazed and counterconditioning was achieved. The issue was the value of the food, not the dog.

I make it a practice when working with fearful dogs that have had a past of shutting down and not taking food to audition the food as soon as I get out doors. Not always, but many times I get the dog taking the food at the very start and during those crucial first 2 -3 minutes I am paying for literally nothing, a few easy cues like “look” or even for orienting to me or a sound far off, heck I will pay for the heck of it as a matter of gauging the dogs stress if they have a pathology of extreme fears that shut them down. This “pay for bravery” approach has worked numerous times to bridge the dog from the start of the walk to the end of the walk, also of course we pay for the big ticket items as well.

The great thing about food as a reward, a reinforcer, a motivator is that the humans can always have it with them, they can also make the food novel and the dog can be strategically fed so that they are a bit hungry when out on a walk.
If the dog is not taking food it is either the dog’s stress levels are too high or the food is not valuable enough for the dog’s work on leash, remember on leash for dogs is always a bit stressful, so have a commiserate pay scale for the dog you’re working on leash.

Misconception #8 the dog is only doing it for the food.
This is half right; the dog is also doing it for the distance and or the stress relief from the human padding the event regularly in some capacity, (jolly talk, food, distance) which is building a proper history, i.e. Safety. This new-found motivation, that food is a part of is helping the dog to form new associations, which is a sign the dog is learning and also a sign that the dog has a better capacity to process tress.

There have been numerous dogs I have worked with that after a solid history of counterconditioning, will orient to a stimulus that may have had an aversive association in the past only to be met with self disengagement and continued scent gathering, or a check in for me to deliver a food reward.

Sometimes when the food is not taken as the reinforcer, it may not be due to fear or overly stressed conditions; scent took the precedent as the reinforcer. Even though the dog took the food in past trials, for whatever reason, the dog chose to disengage and gather scents, fine by me. I have worked with dogs that took the food but what really made the stress reduced was distance and scent gathering, whatever positive reinforcement works to increase the behaviors we want more of is a good thing.

Yes of course there are dogs that are so food motivated that one peace of high value food after a perfectly marked event can look like “magic” or the “food is the reason” the dog stayed under threshold, maybe.

When we peel back the event and look at the parameters of the context, the food may be doing the trick at close proximity, maybe not, but when the stimulus and depending on the type and saliency of that stimulus, may not really be all that stressful, due to intrinsic distances helping the process, and the scents available at the moment the dog may choose to gather scents instead of food.

The take home is; food is only one aspect of the reinforcement process. As Bob Bailey says “reinforcement is a process not an event”. The whole of the procedure that is counterconditioning is what eventually decreases fear or frustration for the dog on leash; it is not “just the food”, even if it appears that way.

When comments to my videos are in the vein of “can’t carry that many treats” or “wow you feed lots of treats in your videos, I can’t do that,” or the classic one “ my dog will get fat,” it’s all being taken out of context, as the one question anyone has to know the answer to when they see some one feeding the dog food rewards is “what you paying for and what are you paying with?” Past that, one does not know unless they do, the feeding schedule of a dog being trained with food, the value or type of food, and the dogs history with that handler and what the dog’s associations in general are to “being on leash”.

Food is a key component to the counterconditioning of dogs on leash that react by barking and lunging or that may be fearful. Anyone that has had training sessions where the food was not taken by the dog, the dog was too fearful, too close and frustrated, or the food was not valuable enough for the context, or the handler was too late in issuing the reinforcement to the dog, and that explains why some dogs do not work for the food, it’s too much stress.

If the process of counterconditioning is not working it’s the humans that need to change their behavior. When it all works out and the dog does great, stays under threshold, adheres to cues, the humans have made better choices and in many cases had good luck. It is said of “luck” that it comes more frequently when people “work harder.”

Focus on human behavior and the environment and the dog will do better each day. That is the real take home of this, it’s not the “food” or the “dog” it is the humans that need to have their behaviors adjusted and their knowledge base increased in order to have the dog change their behavior.

In conclusion
When counterconditioning dogs on leash, it is a series of fluid events that are ever shifting; not only in the moment but also each day is different. I work with many dogs on leash, and all dogs at some point, during some event, need counterconditioning, some dogs more than others, some very little, and it is a process that all humans that walk dogs would do well to become at the very least adequate at, and for the love of the dog, it would great if they became great at it even it was for just their own dog, as it can add so much to their lives in terms of stress reduction and expanding their social circle.

When we countercondition dogs to tolerate or even enjoy a once fearful stimulus such as a pair of clippers it can be executed the same way every time with extreme accuracy. On leash counterconditioning, no matter how great the humans become, and that is the crucial factor, how well we are executing the process. When the human is executing the protocols and then adjusting the criteria as success or not so much success occurs, that is a crucial variable, the humans and their adjustments of mechanics, timing and even where and when the dog is walked.

On the subject of variables, just like in sports and in whether there are variables, nothing is stagnant for long, and sudden shifts occur, that is life when on leash and counterconditioning, so the varying degree of successes are filled with extreme variables in both salience, distances of stimulus and the amount of duration is never the same. The parameters are messy, but the execution of the training does not have to be. Stay aware and stay flexible.

As long as the humans are capable of physically executing what ever needs to be implemented, then they’ll have success, with just about any dog. Read that again, and really think about the work you do with bone fide reactive dogs and why you may or may not be having success, it’s all mechanics and timing in the end.

The trouble begins when the humans that walk the reactive dog are not capable or able to implement the proper protocols. Some people refuse to carry food, some people cannot or will not bend, twist, move, stop, look, grab a treat say the marker, some people a have dogs that are way too much for them to work on leash, they simply are out matched. Or they just will not “do the work”, that does not mean the process is not working; it means the humans are not working.

Counterconditioning dogs on leash to have less stress and stay under threshold is an achievable goal. In no uncertain terms counterconditioning works, when it is applied properly. It takes work, especially for the extremely reactive dog that has lots of triggers.

The question to ask if you are having leash reactive issues or set backs, is simple, “what is the human doing or not doing”?

It’s always a matter of reinforcement and distances those are predicated on human awareness and mechanics and timing. Once that gets sorted out the dog usually does much better.

Hebbian Theory

Fear Processing

Septo-Hippocampal System https://www.neuralconnections.net/2011/08/decided-i-would-just-give-my-opinion-as.html

Bouton & Moody


Sapolsky The Dopamine Jackpot

Counter Conditioning Less Stress More Success

Counter Conditioning Dogs to other dogs when on leash Less Stress More Success

PREY – Counter Conditioning Less Stress More Success

Traffic and Humans on Wheels – Counter Conditioning Less Stress More Success