• David Huzzard

Ten Minute Counter-Conditioning


The dog was good at the meet and greet with his or her owners around but three days before the pet sitting service begins they send a message that their dog might be a bit growly, and on the first visit you walk in to a dog displaying every sign of fear possible. Now as a good pet sitter/dog walker you are going to get this dog leashed up and outside to go potty but you have to do it in a manner that is both safe to yourself and will not cause any further emotional stress on an already scared dog.

I like to think of this as the ten minute desensitization and counter-conditioning protocol or operation slip lead. The concept of desensitization and counter-conditioning is an easy one. Whatever the dog is scared of or aggressive towards needs to be changed from a negative to a positive. This can be accomplished mostly through the use of high value treats with it in mind that a nervous, frightened, or agitated dog won't eat. Given time this is paired with desensitization and the object of the dog's frustration will start out at a distance that garners no reaction, treats will be given, and the object will come closer until they are a few feet from the dog and then the final approach is to be made by the dog to sniff and examine the object and see it is not a threat.

With a dog that needs to be walked in a timed pet sitting visit performing a process that can take weeks is not the easiest thing and condensing it down to a feasible time is virtually impossible. On pet sitting or dog walking visits of this nature the main goal isn't to get the dog to accept us. It is to take care of their basic needs. They need to go outside to potty and be given food and water. If the pet sitting service is long enough or if it is a regular mid-day dog walking client the dog will eventually completely warm up to us.

Back to the example from the first paragraph and how I handled this. First I'm not reaching for a collar of a dog that is growling at me. That means the dog doesn't want me near him or her and I will respect that. The next thing is I need to give the dog space and time to get used to me. Don't make eye contact, turn your side towards the dog, and drop to their level. Oh, and make certain you have treats. Throwing treats when you enter the dogs territory or just getting them to eat a few feet from you is part of the counter-conditioning. for this service I brought leftover liver treats from the Doggy Easter Egg Hunt and tossed them as soon as I entered. This starts the process of the association of me with yummy liver treats. The next step is to assume the most non threatening posture possible of no eye contact, side to the dog, and down on their level and then wait.

The best outcome at this point is the dog will approach and sniff you. Once they do switch positions. This will cause the dog to back away but they will soon approach again and sniff. Change positions again and wait. Eventually reach out a hand towards them and pet them on the side or rump. Let them know that your touch comes only with kindness and then slip either their lead or as we use for these situations our own slip leads we always have on us over the dog's head and take them for a walk. If the dog enjoys walks (which most dogs do) then this will be one more positive association between you and the dog. I like to pet these types of dogs lots on the walk and tell them how good they are and offer lots of praise. They are afraid for a reason and they need to know that not all strange humans are bad. Some of us exist to bring food, treats, and love.

We find this type of fear based aggression most commonly in rescue dogs that may never have known a strange human to offer kindness before. If you know someone getting a rescue dog please have them contact us and we can tell them how a dog walker or pet sitter can help make their new best friend's transition into their home a pleasant one.


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