How to Undergo General Behavior Modification with your Dog

There’s a tremendous temptation to try to console the frightened dog—to cuddle and stroke him, murmuring, “It’s okay, honey.” I know, because I’ve done that myself. However, it doesn’t really do a lot of good and may actually make matters worse.

Say your daughter falls down and scrapes her knee. What moms and dads usually do is to run to the child, give her a big hug, and depending on the age of the child, kiss it better. Then the child is urged to resume playing and forget the injury. This is precisely what you should do with minor fears or accidents that scare your dog. Pick up or hold the dog briefly, check for injury if it was an incident that caused the fear, and then begin to play a game with your dog. This will help him get over his trauma quickly. If you spend too much time comforting, your dog may well associate the fearful incident with a lot of attention from you. This can actually worsen the apparent fear or at least the aftereffects. Some children learn to seek “comforting” for the same reason.

Things get trickier with more serious fears or phobias. Modification methods for all of these problems involve changing the association from stimulus (e.g. noise)=fear to stimulus=pleasure. To do this, you should start on a program of desensitization and/or counter conditioning. I urge you to make sure your dog is healthy first by visiting your veterinarian. If there’s something physically wrong with your dog, then all the behavior modification in the world won’t help.

Desensitization and counter conditioning techniques

Desensitization involves exposing a dog to the particular thing he’s afraid of at a level that he can handle. Counter conditioning establishes a relationship between an event and something delicious or otherwise pleasant. I often use counter conditioning alone, as it’s a fairly simple way my clients can help their dogs change their behavior. Desensitization takes longer and is almost always paired with counter conditioning because the combined behavior modification can work faster. I’m going to use an example of sound sensitivity as the behavior we will work on, just because it’s easier to explain one specific behavior. However, you can use desensitization and counter conditioning on a wide variety of behavior problems, including fear of people and other dogs.

Here’s an example of using counter conditioning alone (creating an association between something scary and something good). Sophie was riding in the front seat of the car when I had a minor accident— my side mirror sideswiped another car’s mirror. The resultant “crack” sound was enough to traumatize anyone, and it certainly did Sophie. After that, while Sophie was happy to get into the car, she hid under the dashboard once she was aboard. Whenever there was even the smallest “crack” (a stone hitting the car, for example), I tossed her a tidbit. Over a period of time, Sophie seemed to expect the tidbit, and after several months, she began enjoying her car rides again. In fact, the noise itself became a cue for the tidbit. I imagine she began looking forward to cracking sounds!

Behavior modification becomes much more difficult and time consuming with severe emotional responses, like thunderstorm phobia, where you will have to combine desensitization and counter conditioning to get any real response. Here’s how that works. You expose your dog to the sound at a very low level for fairly long periods of time. (You can buy CDs of sounds that tend to frighten dogs, including the sounds of thunder, fireworks, backfiring trucks, and motorcycles.) As the dog begins to accept the sound, you should make it louder and louder until finally it’s quite loud. If when you play the sound you also give the dog a toy stuffed with food or some other kind of pleasant experience, you are adding counter conditioning, which will enhance the technique. Some dogs can’t eat when they hear a noise that scares them. If you give food to him anyway, you’ll know your treatment is effective when he starts eating.

Filed Under: Pets & Animals


About the Author: Fred Goodson has a passion for pets and animals. He has 4 dogs and is planning to have another one. He is also a blogger who writes about pets and animals. Currently, he is living in New Jersey.

RSSComments (0)

Trackback URL

Comments are closed.