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Naked and Afraid: What If We Are Wrong About Counter-Conditioning?

“Classical beats operant” when you work to change emotional behavior. I’ve heard this for years in both academic and practical behavior settings. I’ve lived and breathed it, practically shouted it from the rooftops. And then, BOOM! Typical for my professional journey, I realized I know nothing.

These moments when I become aware of my knowledge gaps are “like the most fun thing ever.” They’re also a bit painful. Pushing against the counter-conditioning barriers I’ve found in my work with shelter animals, really listening to my mentors, and looking beyond what I thought I knew because “science said so,” I find that the science is evolving to support a shift in perspective.

Historically, classical counter-conditioning is often cited as a preferred strategy for changing emotional behavior, behaviors thought to be symptoms of negative emotional responses in certain conditions. The premise is that you can change the animal’s emotional response through counter-conditioning, and this emotional change results in behavioral change. Maybe.

Is classical counter-conditioning really the best intervention strategy for behaviors labeled as aggressive or fearful or (insert any emotion word here)? Does the implication of emotion as a cause of behavior help provide effective intervention? Effective counter-conditioning may rely on the selection (and reinforcement!) of new, desirable behavior. This puts you squarely in operant territory. Can you use counterconditioning effectively as an intervention strategy, with eyes firmly focused on observable behavior? Possible? Totally. Powerful? Heck yes.

Lindsay Wood Brown

Lindsay Wood Brown is a board-certified applied animal behaviorist (ACAAB) with a master's degree in animal behavior. Lindsay is a Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) course developer and has served as a KPA faculty member since 2012. Lindsay’s goal is to help behavior consultants and shelter professionals apply behavior-change science to their everyday professional lives. Her focus is on stripping labels, flipping prevailing ideas on their sides for a better view, and honing in on systematic ways to advance strategies.

Lindsay consults for animal shelters across the country and provides 1:1 mentorship opportunities for behavior consultants. She previously served as the Director of Operations for Lynchburg Humane Society in Virginia and as the Director of Animal Training and Behavior for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Boulder, Colorado.