February 12, 2024


Socialisation and habituation aim to ensure that puppies, especially in urban areas, grow up without fears or phobias and enjoy the company of people and dogs in various settings.

However, if your dog is nervous or fearful of unfamiliar objects,  dogs or strangers, it can be classically conditioned with Pavlovian training methods.  Pavlov defined classical conditioning, which involves automatic or reflexive responses and is not voluntary behaviour.  Involuntary responses may include salivation, nausea, increased or decreased heart rate, pupil dilation or constriction, reflexive motor responses, recoiling from pain, or fear.

Many fields incorporate behaviour modification, including phobia treatment in adults.  Behaviourists use the technique to considerable effect with fear-related conditions in dog training when they pair fears with something that evokes a reflexive positive response.

For example, if we condition emotional reactions in our dogs based on rewards, they will almost certainly evoke favourable emotions towards us.

Renowned psychologist John B. Watson carried out one of the most controversial examples of classical conditioning on a nine-month-old child known as Little Albert.  The 1920s experiment took place at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  Initially, there was no response when they showed Little Albert, a white rat.  However, after repeatedly pairing the white rat with a loud noise, Little Albert reacted reflexively in fear.  Eventually, just the sight of the rat evoked extreme fear in the child.  This fear gradually generalised into a fear of all white and furry animals.

In 1924, Mary Cover Jones, known as ‘the mother of behaviour therapy’, became the first therapist to use counterconditioning to undo the effects of an earlier experience.  She proved that it is possible to eradicate fear when she worked with Little Peter,  a three-year-old boy with an extreme fear of white rats and rabbits.  In the laboratory, seated in a highchair, the technicians gave Peter his favourite snacks while they placed a white rabbit in a cage at a distance where it did not alarm the child.  The following day, they moved the rabbit closer while Peter was occupied with his treats.  The technicians repeated this process each day until Peter could calmly eat his snack with the rabbit beside him.  Eventually, Peter was even able to pat and play with the rabbit.

In the same way, you can condition dogs that are nervous or fearful of other dogs, people, or objects.  For instance, if your dog is nervous around people, you should choose a quiet field or a backyard with limited distractions.  You and your leashed dog should stand at a comfortable distance from your helper, ensuring that your dog always stays under threshold and does not react.

Once you have established the optimum range, whether one block or several blocks, you should gradually decrease the gap between you and your helper, step by step, while feeding your dog tiny, high-value treats and encouraging it with lots of praise.  Assess your dog’s response after each step, and only proceed if it shows no signs of fear or distress.  If the dog becomes uncomfortable, retreat until it is again relaxed.  It is crucial to be patient and not rush this phase and ensure that your dog always stays under its stress limit, which could take days or weeks.  Each session should only last 10-15 minutes and should always end on a positive note.  The exercise can be repeated daily.  The object is to keep your dog from reacting, as it associates wonderful treats with the person in the distance.  Eventually, when you can reach the helper without your dog reacting, the helper should also give your dog copious treats.  Once your dog learns to associate good things with a stranger in the distance without fear, it is advisable to reinforce the behaviour with various strangers at different times and in multiple settings, using the same technique.

This form of counterconditioning behaviour modification is also known as systematic desensitisation, which reverses the effects of traumatic experiences.