This summer, will you be reveling in picnic games with family and friends? Enjoying water sports and activities, barbecue menus, and colorful theatrics in the sky? But are you worried that your pets might find aspects of these events a bit stressful – the noise, the water safety gear or the unfamiliar guests, for instance?
Well, this could be a golden opportunity for you and your inquisitive canine to practice a very useful behavior modification method called counterconditioning and desensitization (CCDS). In this post, we’ll explain exactly what that mouthful of a term means and offer step-by-step guidance for exercises you and your pup can start practicing today.
But first, let’s take a look at learning paths.
Learning by Association
Dogs (and humans) are constantly filtering out new information from their environments and learning how to react or respond; this is how animals learn what is safe and what isn’t.There are two common ways inquisitive canines absorb information and transform this information into behaviors– learning by association and learning by consequence.
Learning by association is how things in our external environment go together and make us feel. It is when one event predicts another. The pairing of these closely related predictive events causes an emotional, reflexive reaction (a reaction we don’t control). So, past experiences and memories of events determine the type of reaction we will have in the future.
Dogs rely heavily on learning by association because they are living in a world that is pretty foreign to them, constantly having to filter out information and determine if something is safe (pleasant), dangerous (unpleasant), or neutral (neither pleasant nor unpleasant). This is all part of their survival instinct.
One of the great things about this type of learning is that we can manipulate situations to help dogs learn to like things – even something they wouldn’t normally like. We can do this just by pairing two events – a neutral one followed by something enjoyable, thus creating a pleasant association.
Unfortunately, learning by association can also work against us. Sometimes we ourselves, or the environment, inadvertently creates associations we don’t want our dogs to learn. For example, while riding in a car your dog hears a loud backfire and gets scared. Going forward, he might be fearful of riding in cars – he has learned to associate riding in cars with loud scary noises.
On the other hand, we can often reverse this association and turn those feelings around through a process called counterconditioning and desensitization (CCDS).
Let’s define these terms and discover how this ‘science jargon’ can improve the lives of you and your inquisitive canine.
Counterconditioning: Taking a fear-provoking event, which is associated with an unpleasant situation, and changing (countering) the association to one that predicts something pleasant, reversing the learned response. Often used in conjunction with desensitization.
Desensitization: Process where normal defense reactions elicited by something unpleasant (an aversive stimulus), such as loud noise, are modified by creating pleasant associations using something enjoyable (a positive reinforcer). This is achieved by presenting the fear-provoking stimulus at levels low enough for the animal to notice, but not cause a negative reaction, and pairing it with something the animal loves. Levels of intensity are very gradually increased, but in order to cause the unpleasant feelings to be reversed, the level of intensity must stay below what is unpleasant for the animal, keeping them under threshold. Used in conjunction with counterconditioning.
How to Use CCDS to Help Your Inquisitive Canine
Dog guardians can use training and management, including counterconditioning and desensitization to help to desensitize their dogs to loud noises such as thunderstorms, high volume music, and fireworks. (After all, fireworks and loud noises don’t stop on July Fourth.)
For dogs who might be a bit bothered by the noise but still want to eat* and engage in play, you can teach your dog to associate the weird noise with something great. Here’s how:
- Start with fireworks (or thunderstorm) sounds effects on low volume.
- Play the sound.
- Then in your happy voice say something like, “Yippee! It’s a party!”
- Then give your dog a really yummy treat. Use a treat that he or she never (or rarely) gets, such as a small piece of roast chicken or grilled steak.
- Repeat this process until your dog is looking at you, just waiting to hear the noise, anticipating a yummy treat.
- You can then turn up the volume, but just a little bit.
- Gradually, keep repeating this process until the noise level mimics noises you might hear in your neighborhood.
- Taking breaks between sessions is key.
- Remember to use baby steps so as not to overwhelm your buddy. Start slowly, and build slowly, to help your dog create new, more positive associations.
*Please note: Refusal to eat or lack of interest in food, especially if that’s unusual for your pet, can be common indicators of stress and anxiety. For animals who are very sound sensitive, if the anxiety is too much for your dog to handle, talk with your veterinarian about options for antianxiety medication, if indicated.
Creating Happy Associations for Summer Safety
Next, say your summertime plans will involve swimming, and/or boating with your inquisitive canine. Aside from the activities themselves, what will be involved for your dog? Wearing a life vest? Toweling off after a dip in the pool? Well, guess what? Here’s the good news. You can teach your dog to not only tolerate, but actually like cooperating with you during these tasks.
For starters, pets who are given the opportunity to make their own choices are often less stressed and more enthusiastic about participating in their training and care, even if the situation might be considered emotionally challenging due to past experiences or memories. Additionally, we can use reward-based training methods to help create new happy associations with the required skills.
Let’s take the example of acclimating your dog to wearing a life vest, even if he’s demonstrated in the past that he loves water but doesn’t really like to “get dressed up.” The steps will be similar to the ones listed above for desensitization to loud noises. When it comes to encouraging dogs to love wearing their special water safety gear, we can rehearse playing dress-up. Here’s how we recommend very gradually, over a period of time, getting Fido used to a life vest:
- Start with holding the vest.
- Show it to your dog.
- Then in your happy voice say something like, “Yippee! Swimming!”
- Then give your dog a really yummy treat. Remember to use a treat that he or she loves but rarely gets.
- Repeat this process until your dog is looking at you, just waiting for the vest to appear, anticipating a treat.
- You can then gently touch your dog with the life jacket, then treat.
- Throughout the process make sure to keep the lines of communication open by watching your inquisitive canine’s body language for any signs or signals that it might be best to slow things down or take a break. (When training ‘cooperative care’ skills like this, pets are in control of their own choices and own environment.)
- If Fido would like to continue to participate in the game, start to dress him, then treat.
- Gradually, get him ‘fully dressed,’ giving few snackies after each step.
- The goal is for Fido to say to himself, “Wow! Every time that article of clothing touches my body, I get a party!” So, remember to keep up the enthusiasm, patience, praise and love as you gradually help to reverse Fido’s unpleasant feelings about wearing a life vest.
- Keep repeating this process until the dress rehearsals mimic the real-life procedure you’ll follow before you safely head out on your aquatic adventures together.
Once Fido’s comfortable wearing a life vest, you can make any necessary adjustments to ensure the garment fits well, so he can’t trip over it, wiggle out of it, or chew it off. Of course, you also want to make certain he can move freely and comfortably in it.
Please Note – If you’d like to take your dog swimming, clear it with your veterinarian first and confirm that this fun-in-the-sun activity is age and breed appropriate for your dog. And of course, always supervise your pets around water.
Now that you are familiar with the concept of CCDS, the possibilities are endless. Think about helping your pup learn to feel more comfortable about being checked over for ticks, other critters or foxtails after a wilderness hike, being around different objects only seen during BBQ season, or seeing kids running around and playing with various outdoor toys. The list goes on!
While it is up to inquisitive pet parents to lovingly teach skills our dogs need to thrive in our human world, please remember that it’s okay to ask for help. Feel free to contact us and let us know if you and your canine companion would like guidance with any of the skills that will help you harness summertime fun together.
We hope these tips help you and your inquisitive canine unleash fun-in-the-sun and enjoy safe and happy adventures together all year long!