The Cognitive Revolution and Everyday Dog Training: Cognitively Modified Counterconditioning™
“If you love dogs and haven’t yet heard about the canine ‘cognitive revolution,’ you’ve been living in a bubble.” This is how I began my article, “The Cognitive Revolution and Everyday Dog Training: The Case of ‘Look at That’,” which explores how recent research on canine cognition helps us deepen our understanding and improve the effectiveness of dog training practices that many of us utilize on a daily basis. Cognition in dogs can be broadly defined as information processing: It describes the way that animals acquire, process, and interpret environmental information through mechanisms of perception, learning, memory, and decision-making (Shettleworth, 2010). In my previous essay, I examined how the emergent knowledge about these cognitive mechanisms might change how one implements the protocol known as Look at That. More particularly, I explored how the Look at That protocol depends on several unique cognitive abilities in dogs: gaze alternation, or shifting focus between a trigger and the handler; and social referencing, or the unique ability of dogs to take cues from their humans about how to interpret the environment. I say “unique” because this is a talent that few non-human animals possess. Indeed, dogs, but not wolves, share this capacity only with human animals and certain species of primates.
It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that much of the recent research on canine cognition remains located and produced in highly controlled and often inaccessible scientific contexts. In contrast, the world of everyday dog training is full of unpredictable and uncontrollable variables like training conditions (both climatic and structural, as in whether or not there is 3 feet of snow on the ground and one has access to an indoor training space); sudden environmental changes (a dog that you didn’t see comes charging around the corner, or a car backfires close to where you are walking your noise-sensitive dog); and owner commitment and follow-through (“I’ve been too busy to practice those exercises” or “I forgot to put my dog behind a closed door when the visitors arrived”). Such messiness undergirds my own perspective on the cognitive revolution: Rather than a top-down approach that invents new training methods based on experimental insights, I explore how the cognitive revolution can improve the effectiveness of and deepen my understanding regarding the dog training practices that I already use. One of these practices is counterconditioning.
Like many dog training professionals, I have frequently used counterconditioning as a behavior modification technique. Over years of trial and error experience with hundreds of dogs, however, I have created a hybrid form of counterconditioning that I call Cognitively Modified Counterconditioning or CMC, which combines the relaxation techniques of traditional counterconditioning with insight from the research on canine cognition. It is important to note that all behavior in human as well as non-human animals is cognitively mediated, i.e., filtered through the information processing mechanisms of perception, learning, memory, and decision making. In contrast, the phrase “cognitively modified” highlights how CMC intentionally facilitates the development of cognitive skills that are critical for dogs worried about the environment. CMC emulates counterconditioning’s focus on deep relaxation responses in the presence of an aversive stimulus; unlike traditional counterconditioning, however, CMC also teaches new cognitive skills that help dogs process information about worrisome stimuli in non-aroused ways. Further, the use of traditional counterconditioning in non-human animals is neither consistently reliable nor successful in the long term. This is why CMC offers everyday dog trainers an effective technology for permanent behavior change.
Traditional counterconditioning works therapeutically by literally enacting its name: It “counters” one emotional response to a stimulus by “conditioning” the subject to adopt a different one that actively interferes with the original. Joseph Wolpe (1958), a founder of modern counterconditioning, calls this process “reciprocal inhibition.” Most often (but not always), this process involves offsetting anxious, tense responses with deep muscle relaxation and creative visualization. Wolpe’s model of reciprocal inhibition has become the preferred approach for treating phobias and other fear-related anxieties in humans. Perhaps the most iconic version of reciprocal inhibition for dogs is Jean Donaldson’s (2009) “open bar/closed bar” technique, which she describes as “counterconditioning without desensitization.”
One prominent feature of the “open bar/closed bar” technique is that the “bar,” or access to the appetitive reward, opens regardless of a dog’s behavior toward the scary stimulus. Donaldson illustrates this with the following sequence:
- The bar opens every time the scary stimulus appears.
- The bar closes when the scary stimulus disappears.
- The bar consists of something very special the worried dog does not get in any other circumstance.
- Nothing else but the scary stimulus makes the bar open.
- When the bar is open, the dog’s behavior doesn’t matter.
There can be no doubt that counterconditioning as represented by Donaldson’s open bar/closed bar technique has offered dog trainers much-needed hope for their reactive, fearful dogs. Yet, I also wonder whether a dog’s behavior makes no difference. I wonder about this because several recently published scientific studies have suggested that an animal’s behavior during counterconditioning not only matters, but also that the animal’s active cognitive processing of the aversive stimulus is critical to a successful outcome. The first study relevant to these concerns was published in the early 1970s by Dennis Delprato.
Delprato’s (1973) study attempted to produce an “animal analogue” to the use of counterconditioning for eliminating fear in humans. To accomplish this, Delprato induced fear avoidance of electrical shocks in laboratory rats by first giving them an auditory warning signal, and then shocking them through the floor of the long, rectangular box in which they were enclosed. He successfully countered this fear by feeding the rats food pellets only when they heard the auditory shock warning. Eventually, the rats kept on eating even after hearing the warning that an electrical shock was imminent. On the surface, this might sound like a positive result. After all, isn’t the whole purpose of counterconditioning to eliminate an animal’s anxiety in the presence of a trigger?
However, according to Delprato, these positive results were also short lived, because when the food disappeared, so apparently did the effects of counterconditioning (see also Capaldi et al., 1983). Without access to the food pellets, the rats quickly reverted to their previous fear avoidance behaviors. This caused Delprato to conclude that permanent behavior change necessitates “therapeutic techniques that facilitate functional exposure (induce the individual to cognitively accept the aversive stimulus).” For counterconditioning to achieve its maximum effect, an animal must “cognitively accept,” that is, actively interpret and process information about, the conditioned stimulus. A second, more recent, test of counterconditioning corroborates Delprato’s conclusion and provides further clues about what cognitive acceptance might mean.
In their 2012 study, Thomas, Cutler and Novack note that counterconditioning has been much more reliable in human than in non-human animals. They speculate that a major reason for this disparity is the differing expectations underlying use of this technique. Scientific studies and therapeutic techniques using non-human animals typically present the appetitive unconditioned stimulus (the food reward) independently of their behavior, whereas those directed toward humans routinely ask for intentional responses such as deep muscle relaxation or creative visualization to access the reward. Thomas et. al conjecture that the greater reliability of counterconditioning with humans reﬂects this differential reinforcement of an instrumental response, and they designed their study to test this thesis.
Based on the data generated, Thomas et. al conclude that effective counterconditioning requires non-human animals to “earn” the appetitive unconditioned stimulus (the food reward) much like their human counterparts. They counterconditioned one group of rats to a fear of electric shock by enabling them always to receive an appetitive reward—chocolate milk— when a warning signal for the impending shock appeared; a second group only received access to the chocolate milk when they pressed a lever during the warning. The primary aim of the Thomas study was to investigate whether requiring rats to engage in a behavior—here, pressing a lever—reduced their fear levels more effectively than giving them the chocolate milk no matter what they did. It is significant, then, that the fear renewal rate in the rats required to press the lever was substantially lower than that of the group that received unconditional access to chocolate milk. According to the researchers, these outcomes suggest that transforming a feared aversive stimulus into a “positive discriminative stimulus for instrumental behavior” like lever pressing may prevent fear renewal more effectively than when the appetitive reward is unconnected to the subject’s behavior. What links the studies by Delprato and Thomas, Cutler and Novack is their mutual emphasis on the importance of cognitive work in using counterconditioning to produce permanent behavior change.
These studies point to several important reasons why I have found Cognitively Modified Counterconditioning to be more effective than the traditional counterconditioning, and I want to illustrate this point with a scenario that dog trainers confront quite often: dogs becoming aroused at the presence of other dogs. My subject in this scenario is Emmett, a highly intelligent and very athletic 1-year-old, male German Shepherd. Emmett’s owner originally contacted me because her dog began lunging and barking at other dogs after he was attacked by another dog at the local dog park. When I first began working with Emmett, he showed signs of high arousal such as hypervigilance (he was always scanning), piloerection, growling, barking, and lunging at other dogs, often at a distance of 100 feet or more. After several months, however, Emmett was able to look at other dogs in a non-aroused manner with little or no reactive body language. Here’s how that happened.
For several weeks prior to using my Cognitively Modified Counterconditioning protocol, I had the owner work with Emmett on behaviors like Relax on a Mat, and biofeedback. I condition dogs to regard the mat as an environmental cue to lie down on it and assume a calm body posture. This is very similar to Wolpe’s construction of counterconditioning as deep muscle relaxation. CMC then “borrows” the dog’s history of positive conditioned emotional responses to the mat and deploys these to help him relax around previously worrisome triggers. I also use biofeedback as a form of reciprocal inhibition to aroused and anxious behavior. More specifically, I teach Dr. Karen Overall’s (2014) “Protocol for Teaching Your Dog to Take a Deep Breath.” Dogs taking deep breaths experience not only profound emotional and physical benefits, but also create a natural buffer zone against an over threshold response to any concerning stimulus. Instead of “dog sees other dog and lunges, growls or barks,” you have “dog sees other dog and takes a deep breath.” Try it. It really works.
I then pair these relaxation techniques with the teaching of specific cognitive skills that dogs reactive to other dogs (or any scary stimulus) desperately need, but do not possess. The most important of these skills is teaching a dog how to process information about a scary stimulus in a non-aroused manner as well as how to disengage from it. In the pedagogy of CMC, dogs learn to acknowledge and then turn away, both physically and emotionally, from the triggers in front of them. The precise CMC sequence would be:
- Dog relaxes on a mat, takes deep breaths, and looks at the scary stimulus (here, the other dog).
- Dog receives food reward on the mat for looking at, but not reacting to, the scary stimulus.
- Dog looks away from the scary stimulus to access treats on the mat and, in so doing, begins learning how to disengage from triggers.
- Dog’s behavior matters!
The two videos accompanying this article demonstrate this sequence with Emmett and his owner. I filmed the videos in the parking lot of the local dog park, which made it easy to adjust variables such as threshold distance from the worrisome stimuli (other dogs running around in the dog park as well as coming in and out of the gate).
This first video shows Emmett at a distance of about 75 feet from the fenced-in dog park area. I staged the training so that Emmett’s mat and body position were turned away from the dog park fencing. This would set Emmett up to practice both the muscle memory and the cognitive skill of disengaging from the environment in an almost exaggerated way. The second video was taken later during the same session.
This time I staged Emmett’s mat and body position so that he was directly facing the dogs running inside the dog park fencing. This was more difficult for him (as any head-on view would be), although by the end of the video segment, Emmett was able to calmly acknowledge the dog park dogs and then disengage from them by looking down and searching for the treats on the mat.
It’s important to note that CMC is a hybrid protocol combining some aspects of traditional counterconditioning (deep relaxation on the mat as well as biofeedback) with the cognitive ability of dogs to use social referencing. I envision CMC as a precursor—or more accurately, as a kind of intermediary—to a full-fledged LAT behavior, which does not tend to use counterconditioning props like a mat or techniques like deep muscle relaxation. For example, Cognitively Modified Counterconditioning begins teaching non-aroused looking and then looking away by placing high-value food treats on a dog’s mat. Dogs learn disengagement when they break their gaze at concerning stimuli to eat the treats. This is what happens in both of Emmett’s videos. Emmett still needed the support and structure of the mat as an anchor in a very arousing dog park environment. He was not able, at that point, to do a full-fledged LAT behavior while walking on leash. Throwing treats on the mat every time Emmett looked at the dog park dogs was a way of saying to him: “You are anchored here and, just like with every other experience you’ve had on the mat, those dogs are not going to interact with you. You are safe.” One of the rules of CMC mat training is that, when a dog is on their mat, all stimuli are on a “look but don’t touch” basis. The reward in the videos is for Emmett remaining calm on the mat and looking at/looking away from the scary dogs running around behind the fence.
Some might call CMC “operant counterconditioning” (Dr. Sophia Yin) or “counter conditioning with an operant base” (Ramirez, 2017a)—and this would certainly account for CMC’s hybrid repertoire of instrumental and respondent behaviors. However, I coined (and strongly prefer) the term Cognitively Modified Counterconditioning, to stress the importance not only of reciprocal inhibition through relaxation techniques but also teaching the cognitive skills of environmental disengagement and non-aroused information processing. Animal trainer Ken Ramirez (Ramirez, 2017b) observes that the Look at That protocol does not provide a complete behavioral approach on its own, especially when addressing such issues as aggression in dogs. To be effective, according to Ramirez, LAT must be used in conjunction with other tools. One could say the same of traditional counterconditioning with non-human animals. In my experience, CMC significantly enhances traditional counterconditioning, and not just with dog-dog issues. CMC molds several already existing techniques into an inclusive behavioral strategy and, in so doing, it increases each individual technique’s effectiveness.
Cognitively Modified Counterconditioning offers a resonant example of how integrating knowledge about canine cognition might transform the way we train and partner with the dogs that share our lives. I continue to live in the messy, applied world of everyday dog training. In this world, the admittedly anecdotal evidence of CMC’s success—honed by hundreds of dogs over the past decade—offers enough validation for me. If someone posed the question about why CMC matters, my best answer would be: Because dogs that are fearful, reactive, or anxious about aversive stimuli in their environment are also dogs that are suffering. If Cognitively Modified Counterconditioning can alleviate this suffering faster, more reliably, and more permanently than traditional counterconditioning, it might just be worth a try.
Ramirez, K. 2017a. Aggression in Dogs. Aggression in Dogs Seminar. Exton, PA: Puppyworks.
Since 2006, Laura Donaldson, PhD, CDBC, KPA-CTP has been the owner of Four Paws, Four Directions Dog Training & Behavior Consulting, LLC, located in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. When she is not working with dogs and their human companions, she can be found herding sheep with her Border Collies, tending to Thelma and Louise, her Barred Plymouth Rock hens, clicker training Obi, her African Gray Parrot and following the instructions of her three household cats (the real “bosses” in the family). Laura can be reached via email at email@example.com.
 I find Delprato’s experiment—and many historical as well as contemporary experiments using similar setups—quite troubling because of the pain and suffering that they routinely inflict upon non-human animals. However, I also believe that we can become more humane animal trainers by studying and learning from them despite these ethical objections.