Desensitizing and Counter Conditioning

Desensitizing and counter conditioning is a program (concept) of various different exercises in which the goal is to change the dog’s response and emotional state about certain environments, situations, objects, animals, people, etc.

Before we go into the details and mechanics, we need to address the most important segment. No dog training or counter conditioning can be successful if you don’t have a relationship with your dog, especially if you are dealing with nervous and insecure dogs. Your relationship is the foundation for understanding, learning, behavior patterns, etc. Always work on that relationship. This will help you in any segment of your dog’s life.

The principle behind these techniques is a basic classical conditioning premise; our goal is to overwrite the existing behavior into different more manageable and pleasant behaviors for both us and our dogs.

The first step should be to observe your dog and find out as many of the “triggers” as you possibly can, in order to have a list of potential situations that start your dog’s unwanted reaction.

This can be anything, a loud truck going down the road, eye contact, a door bell, someone running, another dog or cat, etc.Now that you know what starts your dog’s behavior you need to address the environment and the situations around you. For example: if your dog is uncomfortable and fearful of strangers at the beginning stage you would avoid places like boardwalks, or anywhere that your dog may get too close to strangers. The purpose of this is to avoid a possible bad outcome as well as the fact that your dog won’t benefit from close exposure to the source of an unpleasant situation before he is ready for it.

Once you have made a list of situations and events that ‘trigger your dog”, you will need to find out what your dog’s high value treat is. Normally meat, cheese or soft treats are favourable among most dogs; however, you will have to try to find what your dog likes the most. Dog’s do have different tastes.

Normally, I like to start desensitizing and counter conditioning with food and then later if the dog that I’m working with is responding well to a toy I may switch the reward to that toy, instead. This depends on the dog. Food produces a calming and positive response, and allows a dog to stay more focused which is good in the beginning steps, at least until the dog starts connecting the trigger with something positive. Later, if I want to increase the dog’s reaction I will switch to the toy. Remember that dogs react differently when they are highly excited. If you are having issues managing your dog in the presence of a toy, or he gets way too excited, you may decide to stick with the food. This is a personal choice based on you and your dog.

Before we go into the creating and planning exercises part, I would like to explain to you about when to stop counter conditioning, or when you can considerate it to be complete. This depends on many factors, mostly on your dog; some dogs are fine with just one cycle. Other dogs that have a genetic predisposition to fearful behaviors may need repetitions or even a life time plan, of course it does get easier down the road, to work or maintain the wanted behaviors that you have developed. Now we can prepare the action plan or a working strategy. This will depend on the specific issues that you are addressing with your dog. If you have a fearful dog that reacts to many different situations, you will need to address them individually, one at a time. Remember to keep the sessions short and to always end on a positive note.

The first step in your plan is to introduce your dog to a low level reaction in the presence of the trigger, for example: if your dog is afraid or reacts to strangers, what you would do is create a situation where you will introduce your dog to a stranger at a distance at which your dog feels safe and may show little or no interest at all to the trigger, even if this distance is 50meters (165ft) or more, if necessary.

You need to start your work at this level, if your dog is nervous or unsure even a little about the setup of the situation, you have to back up and start from a greater distance, there is little to no point of starting if your dog is already uncomfortable, the goal is to start working outside that zone and then gradually decrease the distance between your dog and the trigger.

Once you have rewarded your dog for looking at the “trigger” (this may be just one treat or if you managed, it could be a few repetitions) walk away from the trigger. Do not continue decreasing the distance yet. Do a few repetitions (in the same day, or if your dog needs more time, a few days in a row). Again make sure that your dog is relaxed while performing the exercise, otherwise increase the distance.

Your goal is a lot of successful repetitions; just how many depends on you and your dog and it is different for everybody. It also depends on the issue that you are working on as well. As a rule of thumb you can always observe your dog’s reaction. If your dog now starts acting excited or happy because he sees the stranger and he knows that a treat is on the way you can try moving to another level, decreasing the distance and getting closer.

How big of a leap you can make between levels also depends on the dog. Some dogs may be fine switching from a 50m to a 40m distance right away without hesitation; on the other hand for some dogs this may be too big of a change. If this happens, go back to the previous step ( in this case 50m) do a few repetitions until your dog is comfortable again and then try switching to 45m instead of going straight to 40m and work there. Your dog may need a bigger number of repetitions broken down into more steps.

Do not switch to another level until you are sure (by your dog’s reaction) that he is ok with the current level.

Keep in mind that the environment plays a big role in your dog’s life. Unlike us humans, dogs don’t generalize, and they have a totally different perception about their environment. Normally, they feel more comfortable in a well known environment therefore the progress may go smoother. However don’t forget that when changing environments, your dog may be overwhelmed to begin with, so it is probably not such a smart idea to continue from the level that you left of with in the familiar location. It is better to step a few levels back until your dog is able to cope with the new environment and the presence of the trigger, as well.

Remember that whenever you change environments, distances, etc. you need to act and reward your dog before he or she gets nervous and reacts negatively. This is very important. Always start at a “safe” distance.

Break the exercises into smaller increments. This is a key part and requires some planning, how many increments are necessary depends on the issue, scenario that you are working on, your dog, etc. I will just mention a few possible scenarios below just so that you have an idea. These are just examples and a few guidelines. You may find some of the steps unnecessary or you may need to break them into even smaller steps, or you may need to change steps with some others. Every issue and every dog is slightly different therefore every plan is more or less unique.

Collar and leash fearIf your dog is afraid of the leash, to deal with this issue, the best way is to break it into smaller elements and back-track the whole exercise.

  • Make him comfortable being next to you
  • Now you can introduce the collar, simply put it on and take it off repeatedly
  • Once he is comfortable, introduce the leash. In the beginning just present it visually to him and click the clip of the leash to produce the sound of it
  • Next, walk around with him, in order for him to become comfortable.
  • When he is comfortable walking on the leash, add leash pressure with lots of rewards (leash pressure starts very gradually, first small levels and only twice a week, then you can increase the levels and the timing once the dog is comfortable)
  • The final step is to get him to a different environment (increasing the level of difficulty and distraction, gradually) in order for him to not get overwhelmed.

Issues with riding in the car

  • Bring your dog around the car
  • Next, exercise getting in and out of the car. Don’t make him wait inside the car, simply in and out until the dog is comfortable with this step.
  • Now you can sit with your dog in the car (doors open) and try increase the time with him inside (use a lot of treats) in the beginning it may take a few seconds, then longer, etc.
  • Close and open the doors. Once he is comfortable being closed inside the car, work on duration
  • Next, clip his harness to a seat belt. Simply hook and unhook it. Again once he is comfortable, start increasing the duration and reward with treats, as well
  • Start the car’s engine, and turn it off. Once he is comfortable leave the car running and increase the duration
  • Start driving. At first in your drive way if necessary and then start increasing the distance and the speed.The more your dog gets comfortable at each level, the more time you can add. You can also start phasing out the treats, gradually.


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