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TRAINING vs COUNTERCONDITIONING

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My dog should be able to get used to other dogs. He's very smart and learned how to shake in one day!"

I hear this - or some variation of it - quite frequently. That if a dog learns new things quickly, they should be able to quickly overcome fear, anxiety, or aggression with a little training, too.

Here's why that's not the case. 

Training involves teaching a dog to do a new behavior. Whether you call it obedience or a trick doesn't matter to the dog. It's all tricks to them! 

Problem behaviors like reactivity, aggression, and avoidance of activities like baths, walks, or car rides, are driven by emotions. Behavior modification in the form of classical counterconditioning is about changing those emotions, rather than teaching new behaviors.

Think of the difference between learning how to do the Chicken Dance at a wedding versus learning not to dodge a bee flying near your face.

When you learn the steps to the Chicken Dance, you are relaxed (maybe a little tipsy), and having a good time looking like a silly person with the rest of your friends. 

When you are dodging a bee, you are avoiding something painful...or potentially life-threatening if you are allergic to bee stings.

Now, we're going to change your fear of bees by learning to do the chicken dance. Ready? 

When we take a dog that is exhibiting a problem behavior and try to fix it with "training," we are likely to run into some challenges. Sure, we can get a reactive dog to sit and stay when another dog walks by, but if we don't address the underlying cause of the reactivity - how the dog feels about other dogs - we're only affecting the dog's behavior in the short-term.

That's not to say that behavior modification doesn't also involve teaching our dogs new skills that help them (and us) during the bmod process. Combined with desensitization and counterconditioning, these skills can make a tremendous difference in a behavior program. In my webinars, I demonstrate how to teach mat training, leash training, attention, and more.

However, these behaviors are targeted to the individual dog and the variables involved in their behavior, as opposed to standard obedience exercises. They are also taught in a comfortable, low-stress setting before incorporating them into the bmod program.

These are also behaviors that are HEAVILY reinforced when in the presence of a trigger, also changing associations. "When dogs appear, and I look at Joe, I get GREAT things. Hey, here's another dog, a chance for me to look at Joe!" Anticipation over anxiety.

So, when looking for help with your dog's fear, reactivity, or aggression, an obedience class probably isn't the right choice and that trainer who presents their ribbons for [insert competitive canine sport] as their credentials may not be qualified to work with problem behaviors. 

Dogs don't growl, snarl, snap, or hide because they can't sit and stay. They growl, snarl, snap, or hide because they perceive or anticipate a threat. Changing their perception is how we change behavior.

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