What follows are very basic definitions of the terms you’ll hear a lot about when you start to train your dog. One hurdle for many people is the attitude that using food rewards will doom them to a life of needing food rewards to get their dogs to perform certain behaviors. By using rewards we are conditioning dogs to behave a certain way when given a certain cue (we say sit and the dog sits). Conditioning is very powerful and if done with enough repetition, will produce a behavior that is like a reflex. We are going to have to feed dogs every day for the rest of their lives. We can make the food do double duty providing nourishment and keeping behaviors nice and strong.

Classical Conditioning: Think Pavlov. The bell rings and food appears. Eventually the bell rings and the dog responds as though food is on its way. Even if the bell rings and no food appears, the dog will drool. Use this technique as the main technique for teaching your dog that scary things and situations mean good things (high value treats & rewards). Classical conditioning is also used to create positive associations with whatever you think is important for your dog to like (coming when called, being touched, sitting, being brushed, having their ears looked at, feet handled, being bathed, etc.).

Counter Conditioning: This is basically using classical conditioning to change your dog’s feelings or response to something it fears. You are creating positive associations and the dog begins to feel happy or excited, or calm about things that previously caused it to feel fear. It takes time and repetition.

Desensitizing: By repeatedly exposing your dog to a trigger, at an intensity which the dog does not find scary, and having nothing bad occur, your dog ultimately gets used to it. If the dog is afraid of a running vacuum cleaner you start slow and first desensitize your dog to the vacuum being in the room turned off, then you might move it around the room without turning it on. It will take many exposures for the dog to become desensitized to something. Combine counter conditioning and desensitizing.

Flooding or Exposure: Forcing a dog to remain in contact with something that scares it. A dog may get over their fear of something, but they can instead become more afraid of it. The best way to train a scared dog is to help it learn how to control its world without behaving in a fearful or aggressive way. Flooding teaches many scared dogs that the only way out of a bad situation is to shut down or struggle.

Habituation: Continuous exposure to something that helps a dog get used to it. Dogs habituate to wearing a collar for example. With a scared dog, especially one that is aggressive you want far more than just a dog that tolerates or gets used to something. A dog that tolerates something or has become habituated to it does not necessarily have a positive association with that thing. And once something has really scared a dog it’s hard for them to habituate to it.

Sensitized: A dog that is repeatedly exposed to things that scare them can also become sensitized to them. That is the risk of using flooding techniques to help a dog get over their fears. What occurs is that you get an amplification of the response from the repeated exposure to the trigger, or it requires less of the scary thing to get a negative reaction from a dog, which is the opposite of what you’re after.

Positive Reinforcement: Reward the behaviors you like.

Behavior Modification or Operant Conditioning: aka training.

Punishment: There’s positive punishment (adding something to the situation to get your dog to stop a behavior, like pulling on their leash or yelling at them) and there’s negative punishment (taking away something to get your dog to stop a behavior). Punishment as we usually think of it, using verbal or physical corrections should be minimized or completely avoided when working with fearful dogs. They either don’t understand why it’s happening and worse, they can associate the punishment with something you’d rather they didn’t.