Operant Counterconditioning

I got an earfull for calling CAT ‘operant counterconditioning,’ but I will continue to put CAT/CAT-H/BAT/LAT (and all the other Dr. Seuss techniques, lol!) under the umbrella term of operant counterconditioning, mostly because a better term to encompass all of them doesn’t exist.


Building an behavior is operant conditioning.

Building a new behavior to replace an unwanted behavior is operant counterconditioning.

Building an emotional association is classical conditioning.

Building a new emotional association to replace an unwanted emotional association is classical counterconditioning.

Obviously, behavior affects emotion and emotion affects behavior.

For instance, we can use classical counterconditioning to change an unwanted behavior, like giving a dog who barks at the mailman a treat every time he sees the mailman.

Because he was barking from a negative association, replacing it with a positive association will eliminate the barking.

But there is a subset of more nuanced techniques which were created to address reactivity that could not be resolved with classical counterconditioning alone.

These techniques rely on building behavior to replace unwanted behavior, which is the definition of operant counterconditioning.

Because of their nuance and focus on emotionality, it’s understandable that the originators may not want these techniques to be labeled under operant counterconditioning, which can be interpreted as only focusing on behavior. That’s fair.

I’v seen CAT being described as operant counterconditioning, more than once.

I’ve seen CAT being described as differential reinforcement of alternative behavior, or response substitution, which are, by definition, operant counterconditioning techniques.

The real definition of what’s going on, ‘Operant counterconditioning using the same functional reward, with classical counterconditioning resulting from the functional reward of the new behavior,’ is a mouthful.

When we look at the fact that ‘counterconditioning’ is being used as a colloquial term for classical counterconditioning, and operant counterconditioning is being used interchangeably to describe techniques like ‘counterconditioning with an operant base,’ and that the originators of these nuanced techniques can’t agree on a common definition, or have even backtracked on their definitions, as was done with the label of negative reinforcement, it’s understandable why there are behaviorists and science-based trainers, including myself, who just lump it all under the the umbrella term of operant counterconditioning.

I do know that, whatever we label it, it works.

When reactivity is self-reinforcing, and self-perpetuating, and classical counterconditioning isn’t working, because the functional reward of reactivity is too strong, finding an operant behavior that we can shape using the same functional reward, that not only replaces the behavior, but the emotionality, because it has its own strong functional reward, works.

So, for all us dummies out here, what does that look like?

Let’s look at a reactive, hypervigilant horse who is not responding to classical counterconditioning…

Hypervigilance is particularly tricky, because it self-reinforces the assumption that danger has been avoided, in the absence of any actual threat, and because it self-perpetuates because it feels so awful.

CAT and BAT are awesome approaches for this, because, in layman’s terms, they use retreat upon relaxation to address the reactivity and hypervigilance.

In CAT, the trigger is moved away from the animal, and in BAT, the animal is moved away from the trigger.

Ideally, both techniques are used under the reactivity threshold, at the threshold of noticing.

Calling any of these techniques negative reinforcement isn’t paying attention to the classical counterconditioning.

Eschewing them because they are labeled negative reinforced is ignoring that fact that the aversive already exists, but we have a chance to shape the proximity control that is already happening into something better for the horse.

Calling them operant counterconditioning loses the nuance, but it gives us a common terminology.

For anyone who is curious:

Eventually, future research could examine the effects of the current intervention with other treatments for aggression in dogs (e.g., operant counterconditioning, CAT).

If a dog is only mildly uncomfortable with something, one can take an approach where the dog is more active. This is sometimes called operant counter-conditioning, or differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior.

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.

The second CC approach is to explicitly condition a volitional behavior that is physically incompatible with the undesirable distress behavior, with the goal that the new behavior increases in frequency while the distress behavior fades away. Tarpy (1982) defines CC as a form of training in which ‘a new behavior, counter to the original response, is reinforced, while at the same time the original response is not rewarded’. Defined as such, this CC is the result of instrumental contingencies and should correctly be referred to as operant counterconditioning (OCC).

Operant counterconditioning: An alternate behavior is trained that is incompatible with the problem behavior. (Note: Usually, for operant counterconditioning to work, the animal must associate the alternate behavior with pleasurable consequences.)

The base is to work at a distance from the trigger where your dog displays a mild reaction to the stimulus, and then you wait for your dog to offer an alternative behavior other than the usual fear/aggressive response, something like looking around, smelling the ground, etc. at that moment you would “mark” that new behavior (clicker training principle) and reward your dog.

As mentioned above, there are a few reward options used in the behavior adjustment training (B.A.T.) approach and one of the most commonly used is the functional reward.

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.

Click to access eva-marie-wergc3a5rd-litteraturuppsats.pdf

They suggest that the existence of so called “functional rewards” for example, the trigger leaving (you can find out more about functional rewards on the behavior adjustment training (BAT) page) is what drives and encourages a dog’s aggression to persist and escalate. Dogs simply learn to deal with the uncomfortable situations by performing aggressive reactions.

Leave a Reply