Are You Really Performing Classical Counterconditioning?

What do the following training descriptions have in common?

  • “My dog’s afraid of strangers. But when she stops barking and makes eye contact with me, I give her a treat.”
  • “I hold her foot. Then I give her a treat after I clip each toenail, as long as she stays in place and doesn’t pull her foot away.”
  • “When we have guests, I wait for him to show some calm behavior like stretching, breathing more deeply, or lying down. Then I give him a treat.”
  • “We play LAT (Look At That). I say ‘Look at the dog’ and she does. I mark, then give her a treat.”[1]Leslie McDevitt first described the Look at That game under that name in her book Control Unleashed. She also includes a classical conditioning protocol by the name of Open Bar/Closed Bar in the … Continue reading
  • “When the cyclists go by, I cue my dog to sit, then I treat.”

These are all training methods designed to help a dog cope with something uncomfortable, undesired, or scary. But they are not classical conditioning.

These five descriptions are all operant methods. How can we tell? It’s because the food is given as a consequence of a behavior.  In each case, a certain behavior is required before the dog is given the food morsel. There is a contingency. If the training is successful, the trainer reinforces the behaviors of making eye contact, staying still, stretching, breathing deeply, lying down, looking at a trigger, or sitting.

Each of these follows the operant model:

  • an antecedent (usually the trigger appearing);
  • a behavior as specified above;
  • and a consequence (food).

The goal is for the dog to learn to perform these specified behaviors instead of being reactive or tense. Any of these could be a successful method, especially if the dog’s unease is not extreme.

Classical conditioning involves a different type of learning.

The Real Thing: Classical Conditioning

First, a little about respondent behaviors. Respondent (involuntary) behaviors include reflexes like the following:

  • blinking when a puff of air is directed at the eye;
  • sneezing because of a bright light or an irritant in the sinuses; or
  • salivating at the sight or smell of food.

Respondent behaviors follow a two-part model: Stimulus/response. In general, respondent behaviors can’t be reinforced or punished. Most of them aren’t under our control. (There are some exceptions.) Think about it this way: if you got praised or got a chocolate chip every time you got goose bumps (cutis anserina), would that happen more? Nope. Goose bumps are a response to a specific stimulus, usually cold or something that causes a strong emotion. Every respondent behavior likewise has a stimulus or stimuli that will cause it to occur.

Classical conditioning is a name for a procedure where we “attach” the respondent behavior to a new stimulus.

The Oxford Dictionary defines it thusly:

A learning process that occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired; a response that is at first elicited by the second stimulus is eventually elicited by the first stimulus alone.

We can cause respondent behaviors to occur in response to a new stimulus by pairing them as described above. Pavlov’s dogs are the standard example. They were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a buzzer that meant the food was coming. The buzzer (first stimulus) reliably predicted the appearance of the food (second stimulus).

Hazel licks her chops when she sees the nail file
Hazel licks her chops when she sees the nail file

In dog training, we use classical conditioning to change the dog’s physiological and emotional response to a stimulus. For example, if a dog is afraid of the sound of delivery trucks we can consistently feed the dog roast chicken after the sound. The dog’s attitude towards delivery trucks will likely change. It will go from fear to, “Yay, chicken is coming!” The truck sound itself will come to trigger the body’s preparation to ingest food and the happy feelings that can accompany that. The happy feelings and behaviors are why we do this. We aren’t trying to teach the dog to want to eat delivery trucks. We are attaching a positive conditioned emotional response (CER+) to something that was formerly scary.

So how is it different from the five examples at the beginning of the post? Here are two examples that outline the basic process of classical conditioning done correctly.

Classical Conditioning: Two Examples

  • “After my dog sees the bicyclist, I wait just a moment, then start feeding her. As long as the bicycle is passing by, I keep feeding. Then I stop feeding a moment after the bicycle disappears from sight.”
  • “My washing machine makes a certain beep if the load get unbalanced. Whenever it beeps and my dog hears it, I give her a treat right afterward.”

Notice that nowhere in those two descriptions is there any mention of a required behavior. Trigger happens; dog gets food. We are so accustomed to asking for a behavior that this can seem quite foreign at first. There are other requirements for performing classical conditioning correctly that I didn’t mention above. Someone who described their training with the phrases above could still be making mistakes in the training. But those are the bare bones descriptions that generally mean that the method is classical, not operant.

Three dogs group around a woman with a vacuum. The dogs have learned to associate the vacuum with good things through classical counterconditioning.
My dogs associate the vacuum cleaner with great stuff

Operant behaviors can change as a result of classical counterconditioning. Former behaviors that were prompted by the fear can extinguish when the dog is happily anticipating food. The dog will likely stop panting, pacing, and barking at the delivery truck if we condition him that truck noises predict chicken. Instead, he’ll be salivating, wagging his tail, and looking for the chicken source.

Classical Conditioning vs. Classical Counterconditioning

“Classical conditioning” is a general term. But we generally use the term “counterconditioning” when we know that the dog already has a fear response to the trigger. We aren’t starting from neutrality; we are attempting to “counter” a negative emotional response. In that case, we usually include desensitization as part of our method as well. That’s beyond the scope of this post.

But I do have other posts and videos with examples of both classical conditioning and counterconditioning/desensitization.  Check out the following. The first two entries are about classical conditioning and the third and four entries are about counterconditioning/desensitization.

“Pavlov On Your Shoulder”

Bob Bailey says that whenever we are training, Pavlov is sitting on one shoulder and Skinner is on the other. As one grows in importance, the other shrinks. What this means is that even while we are teaching a dog with operant conditioning (Skinner), classical conditioning (Pavlov) is going on. If you train with food and toys and other fun, the dog usually gains a positive emotional response to you, the activities you do together, and even the place where you typically train.

The converse is also true. When we do classical conditioning and pair food with a stimulus, we can quickly start to reinforce related operant behaviors. For example, when the dog comes to expect the food after a stimulus, he will start to turn to or approach the source of the food, usually the trainer. Those orienting behaviors occur in between the stimulus and the food, so they get reinforced.

I’m including this section about the interplay of two learning modes because some people use the “Pavlov on the shoulder” comment to claim that the operant training I described in the five comments is classical after all. They will say that all training has elements of classical conditioning, since associations are being made. This part is true. But while both processes are usually going on at the same time, our methodology targets one or the other. The methods are different. Understanding the differences can help us be more effective trainers.

Operant Counterconditioning

I hate to tell you this. Just to make things a bit fuzzier, there is a term called “operant counterconditioning.” It’s not used that often. But it’s the reason I have been specifying “classical” conditioning and counterconditioning all through this post. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin defined operant counterconditioning as follows:

Operant counterconditioning is when you train an alternate, incompatible behavior. For instance, if a dog lunges and barks every time he sees other dogs across the street, you can train the aggressive dog to watch you and go through other obedience exercises when he sees dogs. —Rapid Reversal of Fear and Aggression in Dogs and Cats, Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

Some of my five “not classical conditioning” examples above could qualify as operant counterconditioning.

Why Does It Matter?

I realize that not everybody is a nomenclature nut like I am. But if we want to learn about different techniques, know their strengths and weaknesses, practice them, and discuss them, we need to know the correct concepts and terminology. I have seen dozens of people say that they were performing classical counterconditioning when they were using an operant method. I’ve mixed up the two myself. That usually indicates more than an accidental terminology problem. It usually means that the person really doesn’t understand what classical counterconditioning is.


These short movies show fun examples of conditioned responses. When we perform classical conditioning, we look for the moment where the dog starts anticipating the food after the new stimulus. In the first movie below, Zani gives a clear, “Where’s my food??” look when I pause with the food delivery after touching her back with a plastic syringe. (Note that this is an operant response that has already gotten tacked on. We assume that her body is internally preparing for food, which is the respondent behavior that would be expected from the pairing.)

In the second movie, Hazel shows us the real deal. She’s wagging her tail (operant) but you can also see pretty direct evidence of the internal respondent behavior. She licks her chops (a sign of salivation) repeatedly when she notices the nail file.

Has anybody else’s dog gotten as far as actually salivating as a result of classical conditioning?

Link to Zani’s counterconditioning movie for email subscribers.

Link to Hazel’s classical conditioning movie for email subscribers.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Thank you to Lori Nanan and the wonderful Hazel for allowing me to use the cool movie and photo.


1 Leslie McDevitt first described the Look at That game under that name in her book Control Unleashed. She also includes a classical conditioning protocol by the name of Open Bar/Closed Bar in the book.

28 thoughts on “Are You Really Performing Classical Counterconditioning?

  1. “Has anybody else’s dog gotten as far as actually salivating as a result of classical conditioning?”
    –> Pavlov’s. 😉

  2. The second example is such a challenge for people. They think they’re going to reward pulling away and make cooperation worse. Can be hard to convince them otherwise. Of course the conditioned stimulus is above neutral at that point, but sometimes it happens despite best intentions and efforts. But treating it helps them to recover, at least.

    1. Yes, it’s a hard one. But if it only happens now and then and we adjust our criteria accordingly, it will be drowned out by the pairing, as you say. But yeah, it’s a hard one! Thanks for the comment.

  3. Thank you for putting the time into writing this! I’m working with a client and her barn sour, spooky horse. Was about to send her an email with some of this science in it, but you’ve saved me the trouble 🙂

  4. Our Jack Russell is almost 19 years old and still in fair physical condition. She is, however, completely deaf and in a very food-focused senility. She wakes at 4am every morning and begins agitating for breakfast – incessant barking, whining and hurtling around the house.

    We have tried appeasement (feeding her), pheromone collars (to relax her) and, desperately on vets advice, diazepam ( which was a disaster). At 18, she seems to be beyond any type of conditioning (we have tried for over a year). Any suggestions just to get here relaxed for another ninety minutes? 5:30 rising is fine.

    1. Hi John,

      First I want to encourage you to talk to your vet again. Diazepam didn’t work well with my little terrier but another RX did. The vet has more than one choice. I wouldn’t give up on meds. Second, I want to make sure that you have seen my other website on dog dementia. If you read through the comments there, there are suggestions from other people on various problems. This is a hard one, though. It’s hard to change a habit like that. But if it’s about breakfast, can you leave her some food out at night? Or would that disturb her and your sleep more? I’ve read about a technique for teaching a dog to get up later and later, but that assumes that the dog can still learn, and if your dog has dementia that’s not very likely. Good luck. I know how hard it can be with a really old dog.

    2. Anipryl… seriously! It is effective for canine cognitive dysfunction in the vast majority of cases. This is a veterinary product and it is a bit expensive, but it may restore your dog back to normalcy… worth a trial!

      1. I never suggest specific meds myself since it presumes we know your dog’s diagnosis, but I see no harm here in publishing Martha’s suggestion. You’ll have to ask your vet anyway. She’s right; Anipryl (generic selegiline) is the drug in the US used specifically for canine cognitive dysfunction. It’s not a cure, but can slow the progression and show some pretty fast improvements.

    3. Hi John,

      Have you tried Aktivait? It’s a supplement that works for a lot of elderly dogs. I see a lot of improvement in dogs in my behaviour-practice.

      1. Thank you for that, Krista. Aktavait is not sold in Australia for some reason although I am told I can get it imported from overseas. I will give it a go.

  5. As you know, this is one of my hot topics on various social media groups. I view basic applied science knowledge as imperative for anyone who wants to train dogs for a living. Great job, as always!

    1. Thanks very much, Anne! I wrote it with social media questions in mind. I just wish I could have kept it a little shorter!

  6. Another Gem!! Sharing, sharing! (We do a “touch-then-treat” exercise with all of our beginner and puppy classes. It can be challenging to get owners to simply provide the stimulus (touch an ear, touch a foot, look at teeth) and then follow it with a treat, without wanting the dog to “do” something…… However, once they start to see the response of what I call “leaning in” to the trigger (touch), they are sold! Thanks for clarifying so beautifully, Eileen!

    1. Thanks, Linda! I really do like doing CC–and I think I got sold just like your clients do. It’s so lovely to seen the changes in the dog.

  7. I’m currently working with my rabbits Meeple and Nemesis so they will accept handling – like most rabbits they hate being picked up, but it’s necessary for them to learn to tolerate it for medical examinations and bottom checks and nail clipping and things like that.

    Both are very smart and do well learning little tricks like sitting up in a “begging” position, touching a targeting stick, targeting a hand, moving objects, and going back into their pen when I ask. Operant conditioning is easy for them because they understood very quickly that they have to do something to get the reward, and they are eager to try out new behaviours to find out what will get rewarded.

    I’ve been using classical conditioning to desensitise them to handling – touch, click, treat – gradually increasing the duration of the touches and moving to areas they are less comfortable with such as their belly and feet. I click-treat no matter what their response is, but I take moving away as a sign I’ve gone a little too far and dial it back a bit until they seem comfortable again.

    The problem is, it’s taking forever. They are much improved, definitely, but it’s taken six months to get them to the stage where I can put slight upwards pressure on their tummies as if I’m going to lift, without actually lifting. It takes only a couple of sessions for them to learn a new behaviour (learning a cue takes longer), so I’m wondering if perhaps classical conditioning is harder for them because they aren’t actually _controlling_ the process themselves by offering behaviours for rewards. I’m the one performing the behaviours and they merely tolerate them.

    Of course rabbits are prey animals and there is a strong fear response to anything that resembles being grabbed by a predator, and that’s a hard thing to overcome. I suppose I’m asking them to completely change their nature. But I’m hoping to save them from experiencing stress since handling is inevitable and unavoidable.

    1. Hi Anna,

      How fascinating to work with rabbits! One thing that I deleted from my article because it wasn’t strictly on the topic was that if one uses a clicker for CC, it actually can weaken the relationship between the touch/husbandry behavior and the food. It’s counterintuitive since marking the exact thing we want them to notice seems to make sense to us. But if we do that, then the primary association is between the clicker and the food, and the conditioning of the handling is “higher-order conditioning” via the clicker.

      Something I have learned for myself is not to get into a habit of predictable, repetitive “conditioning sessions.” A stealth touch followed by a high-value treat when they aren’t expecting is indicated to be more effective than sitting down and doing, for instance, 10 or 20 reps. If I do do some reps, I make sure to wait at least 20 seconds in between and not get into a rhythm.

      One thought is that when an association is built successfully through classical conditioning, the animal need not even know it’s happening. So I personally don’t think it’s an issue of their not feeling in control. They wouldn’t need to be in “control” if they didn’t think something was expected of them. (Forgive the anthropomorphic expression but you get the drift.) But perhaps the sessions using the clicker do resemble operant training. So maybe that would also indicate some “stealth” conditioning could help.

      I do “null” sessions where I carry in the special food so my dog smells it, but since I don’t do the particular action we are working on, she doesn’t get the food. (I know, mean.) Also I do other things that don’t “pay,” so as to make it ultra clear that the food follows the handling only.

      I imagine you know about Barbara Heidenreich’s work with rabbits.

      Those are just some thoughts. Forgive me if I am completely off base. Good luck!

  8. Yes ! Inouk now licks her chops when I take the car keys. I was so pleased. I treated her for months (years ?) and it happened suddenly. It’s like seing egg whites turned into snow for the first Time. You know it exist but seing it the first Time is a memorable experience. Thank you Eileen for bringing those concepts within our reach.

  9. Helping my pony to tolerate his annual dental check and teeth float has become an integral part of my day to day training.,Have several strategies involving both desensitisation and counter conditioning him to everything from the sound of the file, to the use of the head collar to the sight and smell of the equine dentist, this is a continual process and the plan is to enable him to undergo the process without sedation. The sound of the battery operated file needs to be a good signal, associated with food. Eventually I want the sound to signal him to open his mouth but I need to take away the fear of the drill first. Its a fascinating thing to train and is a long term project. Your post has given me much to think about thank you

    1. How lovely that you are working on all these different things, hopefully to come together for your pony. That’s a fantastic goal to have his dental check done without sedation. Thank you so much for sharing this. Glad the post helped.

  10. I added this to my stays when I shared this to my FB trainers group. I thought you might like me to say it direct to you as well.
    “Oh this is brilliant.

    Thank you Eileen. I’ve been trying to get trainers to understand this difference for many years.

    I also love the way you explain how as one becomes more important the other becomes less.

    That’s exactly why in my puppy classes we teach handlers a classical conditioning technique for husbandry handling first, get them to go away and practice that for a week then the next week we explain how to shift that into an operant technique.

    You are also so right in that many trainers I know confuse counter conditioning with classical conditioning as well.

    Thank you for this very well written article explaining very clearly in lay terms the difference.”

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