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Beyond counterconditioning: Ancillary behavior modification techniques (Proceedings)


Behavior problems associated with fear and aggression are the most common issues presenting to behaviorists, particularly in dogs.

Behavior problems associated with fear and aggression are the most common issues presenting to behaviorists, particularly in dogs. Treatment programs generally focus on implementing management steps and instituting desensitization/counterconditioning exercises. The latter intervention primarily is based on a classical conditioning paradigm in which the fear eliciting stimulus is paired with something pleasant (e.g. food or toys) to change the animal's emotional response.

The two broad categories of learning, respondent and operant learning, deal with involuntary and voluntary behaviors respectively. Respondent (or classical) conditioning encompasses automatic stimulus-response process including reflexes and species typical behaviors. Classical conditioning is employed to develop what are often called "conditioned emotional responses" —behavioral suites indicative of emotional states such as fear. On the other hand, operant learning deals with voluntary behaviors and behavior-consequence contingencies. This is the process by which animals are taught behaviors such as sit, come, stay, etc.

It is the general belief that the animal will be unable to learn operant behaviors in the face of underlying fear responses; therefore, the treatment program should focus on changing the animal's underlying emotional response to a stimulus before other training will be effective. This has led to the prolific use of desensitization/counterconditioning programs (D/CC) for dealing with behaviors encompassing fear and aggression. Behavior programs frequently are designed exclusively to utilize classical conditioning (e.g. "Bar open, bar closed" program) whereas others are intended to incorporate both operant and classical conditioning. In reality, both paradigms are in effect at all times no matter what the trainer is hoping to emphasize. Even with "bar open, bar closed" sessions, operant behaviors are being reinforced, even if it is not the trainer's intention.

While extreme levels of fear can interfere with effective learning, the notion that fear blocks all learning is inaccurate. Fearful animals still learn effective lessons about escape behavior or aggression, particularly if these behaviors resolve the situation that triggered the fearful response. If fear abolished learning, fear would be a maladaptive trait in the wild.

Desensitization and counterconditioning programs are quite effective in addressing a variety of fear related behaviors. However, they have a number of limitations. The owner must be able to recreate the trigger stimulus/situation in a controlled manner for effective sessions to occur; this is often difficult and time consuming. Additionally, owners often have difficulty recognizing relaxed behavior which impacts their ability to properly set up desensitization hierarchies. Lastly, D/CC sessions are typically done with the animal in a stationary potion (standing, sitting, lying down) and this proves extremely challenging to some animals.

By limiting our approach to D/CC focused programs, we leave a wide range of potential successful interventions untapped. By concentrating on operant behaviors, we are better able to observe the success of the training (we cannot directly observe emotions; we infer them based on the external observable behavior). Additionally, because operant learning focuses on choice, we allow the animal to be an active participant in the rehabilitation process.

The options available using operant paradigms are almost limitless. Some of the more common and useful techniques include the use of targeting, spatial control, object approach/avoidance, and cued interaction.


Targeting is a ubiquitous training tool in the animal world. Targeting entails teaching the animal to place some part of its body (e.g. nose, paw, ear, or entire body) against or on a designated target stimulus. Common targets initially used to teach the concept include mats, sticks/rods, can lids, mouse pads, etc. Stationing is a form of targeting where the animal is trained to place its entire body in or on a designated spot. For example, a bird might be trained to "station" onto a specified perch away from the cage door to allow the caregiver to safely open and close the door to feed the animal. Targeting is also used to prompt the animal to move in a specified direction or to a specified place. Animals fearful of certain stimulus (e.g. nail trimmers, appliances) can be trained to target to the offending stimulus.

Other common uses for targeting

  • Stationing the animal away from the table during human meal times

  • Cage door aggression (train the animal to station on a target away from the door while the door is opened or closed)

  • Teach the animal to get into or onto a table or car (e.g. train to a target and place the target in the car)

  • Veterinary or maintenance procedures (train the animal to station on an exam table or offer a body part for examination or blood draw)

  • Dealing with fear of doorways or stairwells (send the animal through the doorway to a target)

  • Teach leash walking (train the animal to target to a designated area near the handlers body or follow a target stick)

Backing, object approach/Avoidance and spatial zones

Many issues involving aggressive responses between animals and humans involve confrontations over resources or when the person encroaches into the animal's personal space (e.g. walking nearby or reaching out to pet the animal). Rather than just doing counterconditioning to teach the animal to "be ok with it", we can use operant behaviors to train the animal to actually avoid such situations early in the behavior modification program.

Training "leave it", "drop it" and "back" allow for recovery of resources the animal already has or having the animal move away from a resource that could trigger guarding behavior. Behaviors that put more space between the owner and the animal can reduce nuisance behaviors such as mouthing and jumping. This can be accomplished by sending the animal away (e.g. to a target) or teaching the animal to back on cue. One technique for the latter behavior is to use a mild negative reinforcement procedure using body blocking combined with positive reinforcement for the dog maintaining a personal space zone around the owner. The end result is a cue (stepping forward toward the dog) that triggers the dog to back away and immediately orient to the handler. This behavior can be used to interrupt interaction with a stimulus or prevent the animal from approaching a stimulus too closely.

These behaviors are essential exercises for resource guarding situations and impulse control disorders.

"Look at that!"

The "Look at That!" exercise is one popularized by trainer Leslie McDevitt. The animal is trained to look at a trigger stimulus on cue as part of the process of helping the animal cope with the proximity or appearance of a challenging stimulus. By cuing the animal to look, the trainer keeps control of the animal's visual interaction with the stimulus. This allows the trainer to reinforce the animal for glancing at the stimulus rather than potentially reinforcing staring. Additionally this cue can be used to warn the animal of an approaching stimulus far enough in advance that the animal is not surprised by its appearance when it is in closer proximity. These sudden appearances trigger explosive reactions in many dogs that could remain relatively calm if they had advance warning of the approach of the stimulus.

Practitioners should avoid becoming entrenched in using counterconditioning as the primary foundation for rehabilitation programs. Using operant learning to teach non-traditional behaviors opens a wide range of alternative solutions to a variety of behavior problems that may more easily meet the client's needs and skill level.

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