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Unleashing the Power of Conditioning: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Aggression in Dogs

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Market Harborough Dog Trainer & Behaviourist

Would you like to have a sweet?....

Do you see this and your mouth begin to tingle? Are you salivating with the antisipation of eating one of these intensely sour sweets.....

Conditioning plays a pivotal role in shaping behavior in both humans and animals. One classic example of conditioning can be found in the salivation response of humans when they see sour sweets, or when you hit your knee and react to pain but then realise it didn't hurt at all. This involuntary reaction is a result of classical conditioning, a process that Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov famously studied with his experiments on dogs.

He was studying dogs digestive systems and stumbled upon their auto salivation when the dinner bell was rang even though there was no food yet in sight.... a behaviour automatically happened without thought, rhyme or reason to a trigger.... a bell that rang every time food was coming... a dog doesn't think about salivation to the dinner bell, they just do!

But how does this relate to our furry companions in training? In today's world, conditioning techniques particularly while usibg positive reinforcement, are invaluable tools for addressing prey drive, fear and aggression issues in dogs. With lots of work time and effort These methods can help transform a fearful or aggressive dog into a well-adjusted and confident companion. If done correctly whistle recalls create a new conditioned response and can have a greater chance of over riding a prey drive instinct in a dog.

Understanding Classical Conditioning and its Relevance

Classical conditioning involves associating an initially neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus to create a new, conditioned response. Fireworks causing fear then the anticipation of fear.

In the context of dogs, consider a dog that becomes fearful whenever it hears thunder. Over time, the sound of thunder becomes associated with fear, causing the dog to tremble or hide. Similarly, dogs with aggression issues might associate certain triggers with danger or trigger their fight or flight reflex, leading to reactive or fearful behavior.

Applying Conditioning Techniques to Dogs

To address fear and aggression issues, positive reinforcement is a powerful technique that can be used. This approach involves rewarding desired behaviors to encourage their repetition, ultimately replacing negative reactions with positive ones. Here's a brief step-by-step guide on desensitizing and reconditioning a dog to a trigger but firstly it's strongly advised you have a professional registered behaviourist on hand to help guide you through this process to not make matters worse or miss interpret your dogs language:

Step 1: Identify the Trigger Pinpoint the specific trigger that causes fear or aggression in your dog. It could be anything from a certain sound to encountering other dogs.

Step 2: Set the Stage Create a controlled environment where you can gradually introduce the trigger without overwhelming the dog. Start with a low-intensity version of the trigger, like a recording of thunder instead of the real thing.

Step 3: Positive Association Pair the trigger with something your dog loves, like treats or playtime. For instance, play the thunder sound and immediately offer treats and praise. This helps the dog form a positive association with the trigger.

Step 4: Gradual Exposure Slowly increase the intensity of the trigger while maintaining positive associations. If it's other dogs causing the aggression, start by observing them from a distance where your dog feels comfortable and reward calm behavior.

Step 5: Monitor Progress Pay attention to your dog's reactions and adjust the exposure level accordingly. If your dog shows signs of fear or aggression, dial back the intensity and work at a level where they remain calm.

Step 6: Consistency is Key Consistency and patience are vital. Practice the exposure and positive association routine regularly, gradually working closer to the actual trigger.

Step 7: Reinforce Calm Behavior Whenever your dog exhibits calm behavior in the presence of the trigger, reward generously. This reinforces the idea that staying calm leads to positive outcomes.

Step 8: Seek Professional Help If your dog's fear or aggression issues are severe, consider enlisting the help of a professional registered behaviorist like myself. They can provide expert guidance tailored to your dog's specific needs.

By leveraging conditioning techniques, particularly positive reinforcement, you can help your dog overcome fear and aggression issues. Remember that every dog is unique, so the pace of progress may vary. With patience, consistency, and a dash of scientific understanding, you can make remarkable strides in improving your dog's behavior and overall quality of life.

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