Open Bar/Closed Bar is a great training game to help dogs become more comfortable with things they are reactive, aggressive, or afraid of. It is often used for dogs with handling issues (e.g., uncomfortable with having their collar grabbed), fears of certain types of people (men, people with facial hair, tall people), or reactivity toward objects, such as cars.
Changing your dog’s emotional association to a trigger is a very effective way to influence your dog’s behavior. It takes time, repetition, and carefully following certain rules, explained below.
What is DS/CC?
Desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) is a time-tested method for improving behavior in dogs that have a strong emotional reaction to a trigger. Often this manifests as reactivity (barking, lunging, staring), aggression (growling, snapping, biting), or fearfulness (hiding, trembling, running away).
Counterconditioning means changing the dog’s emotional association with the trigger from positive to negative. To countercondition, we must pair the trigger (at a very low intensity – see below) many, many times with something the dog loves. This is usually best accomplished by using lots of tiny pieces of very high-value food (real cooked meat or cheese). The dog comes to feel happy about the trigger because it predicts delicious food.
Desensitization means reducing the dog’s response to the trigger by starting the trigger at such a low level that the dog does not react to it. The dog eventually thinks the trigger is no big deal. For visual triggers, we usually start with it so far away the dog can barely see it. With sound triggers, we start with the sound at such a low volume that the dog can barely hear it.
We must combine DS and CC: If the dog is reacting (barking, hiding, lunging), even if we are feeding high-value food (counterconditioning), the dog is over their threshold of tolerance. We are not using desensitization. In fact, the dog may actually be further sensitized to the trigger.
A Human Example…
Imagine you have a phobia of snakes. If I wanted to help you overcome your fears, I would not start by trapping you in a room full of pythons (like Indiana Jones). This would not be DS/CC; it would be “flooding.”
Instead, I would start with showing you a picture of a funny little cartoon snake, and then give you $100. I would repeat that until every time you saw that picture of the cartoon snake, you felt happy.
Then I would show you a picture of a real snake and pay you $100 each time. Eventually, we would start with one small real snake at a distance. And you would be free to stop the training at any point if it felt too uncomfortable for you.
Open Bar/Closed Bar
Trainers often refer to this method as “open bar” and “closed bar.” When the dog sees (or hears or feels) the trigger, the bar is open: you feed MANY TREATS, one after the other — treat after treat after treat. As long as the trigger is present, the bar is open, and it’s fantastic! The dog should feel showered with fabulous goodies. It should be dramatic, repetitive, and wonderful.
Equally important is when the trigger goes away. As soon as the dog does not see or perceive the trigger, the bar is closed. Then life is boring. No treats, no praise, no petting, just boring. Over time, the dog notices the dramatic difference between these two situations and starts hoping for the trigger to appear so that the bar will open again!
Once your dog looks delighted by the presence of the trigger, you can make it a tiny bit more intense (bring it closer, make it louder, etc.). But you still must keep the dog below the threshold of reactivity or fear. GO SLOW. It is always better to go slower than to push. Only make the trigger more intense when your dog looks truly happy (wagging tail, eager, happy, relaxed, loose body) to see the trigger. If they are just tolerating it, that’s not good enough.
To do both types of training – planned lessons and “real-life training” – it helps to know how dogs learn. It helps to understand that dogs have two types of learning: emotional learning and learning by consequence. Both play a role how behavior problems develop and how to modify them with training. Both types of learning are taking place all the time and at the same time. Please see our handout on how dogs learn for more information.
Tips for Success
Although the concepts are simple, it can be tricky to do DS/CC correctly:
- The trigger has to occur first. The trigger must PREDICT good stuff. If your dog is fearful of people, she must first see the person, and then get one treat after another. It is a common mistake to feed before the trigger appears. This is usually not effective and can even make the dog hate or fear treats
- There must be a noticeable “closed bar” between each “open bar.” If the dog thinks he’s just getting treats and doesn’t notice that the treats only happen when the trigger appears, you are not making the crucial association between trigger and treats
- Closed bar must mean truly closed bar. Keep it boring – don’t chatter, don’t pet, don’t praise, don’t play, don’t feed. Just stand there watching the paint dry.
- Increase intensity of the trigger in the smallest increment possible. If the trigger is 20 feet away, and your dog is delighted when it appears, move it 19 feet away. Don’t skip to 10 feet! Likewise, if your dog looks totally happy, relaxed, and playful with fireworks sounds at volume level 1, now train with it at level 2.
- Do not increase the trigger’s intensity until your dog looks delighted to see the trigger. It’s not enough for your dog just to not be reacting. Your dog must look actively HAPPY every time she sees the trigger. This means loads of repetition.
- If your dog is making progress, but training feels horribly repetitive, boring, and slow – you’re probably doing it right!