Desensitizing and counter-conditioning (CC&D) is a wide spread behavior modification technique whose ultimate goal is to change the emotional response (which leads to an overall change in the dog’s approach to the subject) towards a given “trigger” that caused the dog to react in the first place.
On this page you will find the details that you need in order to successfully create a rehabilitation plan. You will also find information about dog calming signals, at the bottom of the page, which are useful techniques to develop a language of signals that may help your dog stay calmer in certain situations.
Desensitizing and counter-conditioning is actually a combination of two different techniques that work well hand in hand, in order to produce the ultimate goal which is a different emotional response from our dog to a certain stimulus (or so called “trigger” in dog training circles). This is any situation, object, person, etc. that provokes a fearful reaction in a dog.
To start we can explain the desensitizing and counter-conditioning concepts;
This type of behavior therapy was perfected by psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe and the goal was to change the fear and anxiety based responses to certain stimuli for his patients (humans). The same technique is used for dogs.
The goal of this behavior therapy is to expose the subject to a low level trigger which evokes the unwanted response in certain scenarios, and then to decrease the distance and the amount of stimulus gradually to where the subject can “control” the situation emotionally.
This is the opposite approach to the flooding in dog training technique which is based on exposing a subject to the highest level of stimulus, provoking in most cases, the highest level of response in order for a dog to “go through it” until he “realizes” that there is actually nothing dangerous in that particular situation.
Counter-conditioning is basically a classical conditioning in which we are pairing something that was producing an unpleasant response with something pleasant instead. In most cases treats are used, this is for a few reasons;
By pairing food with a trigger at a sub-threshold distance (a distance where a dog has little or mild to no response) we are getting the “looking forward to” instead of the fearful aggressive response. This process is also known as conditioned emotional response (CER) and the purpose is to change the complete emotional response towards something that was considered to be unpleasant to the dog before.
This is, in most cases, a long term procedure that can vary anywhere from weeks to years. Exactly when you can consider yourself and your dog to be “done” with desensitizing and counter-conditioning therapy is difficult to say. It depends on the dog, the amount and strength of the stimulus, the handler, the environment, etc. and in some cases it is even a lifetime process.
It is important to mention that even if you never fully resolve the issue (although this is rarely the case) just lowering the dog’s response to a certain trigger will help him in managing his fear/anxiety levels.
Far too often, I meet with dog owners that believe that a certain behavior appeared “out of the blue”, only to later discover upon meeting the dog, that he is a fearful temperament type of dog. Just like any other behavior pattern in a dog’s life, fear and anxiety tends to grow and will “spill over” to parts of a dog’s life that never before exposed a fear. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to help your dog with these issues; otherwise they will progressively get worse for him.
Although every situation is unique, there are a few steps that we can use as a guide in getting started:
These should be enough to start, and I will repeat again as with any other behavior modification (or therapy, if you prefer) it is always advisable to contact a professional for advice and help.
The first step in desensitizing and counter-conditioning is to locate the stressors (triggers) to which your dog reacts. These are unique for each dog and they may be related to certain environments, situations, objects, animals, humans, etc. Understanding what provokes the fear/anxiety responses in your dog is your starting point.
This is a very important step. The better your plan is, the fewer issues that you will encounter during the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process. Making a plan involves;
Every plan will have to be broken down into levels. Depending on the issue, the dog’s temperament, etc. these factors will all determine the number of levels and if necessary, mid-levels or other improvisation in order to help your dog get through each one. What is important about each level is the distance. Although there are no rules set in stone about this, it is more of a personal choice based on the dog, the stressors, the environment, etc.
Once your dog is comfortable with one distance, try moving closer by about five metres or more (depending on the dog) and then try again from there, if your dog seems to overreact at this distance, move back to the previous successful distance and then progress to only half the distance, etc.
One of the first things about this process; is that once you decide to go through with desensitizing and counter-conditioning, you will need to organize your daily routines and environment in order to avoid getting into situations where your dog will be exposed to the triggering stimulus which will result in fear/anxiety responses. The only time that you want your dog exposed to this, during the process, is when you have set up a controlled rehabilitation scenario, or are in control of the situation.
You are working on changing your dog’s feelings (or emotional response) in certain situations and exposing your dog to those same scenarios in which he gets “over the edge” will only set you backward in your process.
Is it possible to avoid everything?
No, it probably isn’t. No matter how good your plans are and how good of an organized environment scheme you have made, you may still end up running into problems unexpectedly. For example, if you are dealing with your dog’s fearful aggressive response to other dogs, you may find yourself in a situation where you are passing near a parking lot and someone just took their dog out of the car right in front of you, or you are passing in front of a building and someone is just exiting the building and suddenly your dog is simply too close to that stimulus and his reaction is inevitable.
Once this happens there is nothing much that you can do, no yelling, treats, praising or whatever you do will help or change his response, it is too late. When that moment happens, your dog gets under the influence of adrenalin and other body chemicals and his brain sort of “locks”.
The best thing that you can do, at these times, is to physically remove your dog from the scene (walk away) until you reach your safety distance, at which you can once again communicate with your dog.
Once you have regained control over your dog, end the experience on a positive note, use treats while your dog is watching the other dog leaving or engage in a game of play, and then you can go back to the environment where it happened, do a few more treats and short playful interactions. Always end with a positive experience.
It is important to take the time to do these steps and not to just leave the “crime scene” as many people do by simply leaving and not turning back or doing anything else to address the unexpected situation. The reason for this important step is that you are running the possibility of actually training your dog that the bigger the reaction that he creates; the faster that you will leave the potential unpleasant situation. Your dog may learn that this is the way to deal with and resolve these conflicts, and this unwanted behavior can become a bad or uncontrollable habit.
Since the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process is a form of classical conditioning, in order for it to work, the dog needs a certain number of successful repetitions. This will be your toughest challenge as you need to create situations where your dog will be exposed to a stimulus at a certain distance for “x” number of repetitions before moving to the next level.
This is a time consuming process that may require the help of other people, other dogs, etc. This can be difficult to organize and requires a lot of patience while going through the different levels, so many people mistakenly tend to try to rush things through. If you end up rushing, you will face problems which will require taking a step or a few steps back to the last previously successful level.
TIP: There is no room for rushing in the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process; we can only follow our dog’s pace. The only time at which we can change the level and advance to the next, is when our dog is actually ready to do so. How many repetitions are needed at each level? That depends on many, many factors some of which we mentioned above but mostly all dependent on the individual dog.
It is not so easy to create situations and scenarios in which you can have control over a stimulus and your dog’s reaction to it. A dog expert can help you break down certain problematic situations in order for the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process to go as smoothly as possible.
Now that you have determined the triggers, made your training plan, divided into levels that you think may work best and you have an idea of how to create situations, it is now time to find a safety distance at which to begin working.
The safety distance is considered to be a distance where your dog shows mild to no response at all to the trigger. For example: if your dog reacts to another dog at a distance of 10 meters (32ft) you need to move back and try a 20 or 30 meters distance (65ft to 98ft). You need to work at the distance where your dog won’t show the signs of nervousness.
Once you have that distance that is your Safety distance at which you will start your desensitizing and counter-conditioning process.
The best way to describe how the whole process works is detailed in the picture above. In this case, the dog is reacting to humans. In the middle of the picture there is a dog, the blue ring is the safety distance area. The red line represents the direction that the person in the left corner is moving. There are two points where this red line crosses the blue ring. The entrance point and the exit point.
The gray area actually represents the level, the distance at which the trigger (in this case the person) penetrates the dog’s safe zone. As your dog becomes more comfortable, this gray area will expand.
This is what desensitizing and counter-conditioning are all about. You don’t have to remain in one spot, and one environment, as long as you stick to the same principles.
As with any other type of dog training, when working through the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process, you only raise and add one criterion at a time. It is pointless, for example, to try working on a dog’s fear of people in a place where the dog is already overwhelmed with stress from the unknown or uncomfortable environment.
Working on two or more criteria at the same time is impossible as it would be overwhelming for the dog and may slow down the process even more. The more things that you are trying to add at the same time, the slower and more demanding, if not impossible, the whole process will be.
The environment plays a huge role in desensitizing and counter-conditioning. For example, your dog may react to a human presence in a familiar place at a distance of 10 metres (32ft), but if you expose the same dog in an open area and a human figure where that person is the only “object” in that area, the dog may respond to the trigger at a much greater distance.
Desensitizing and counter-conditioning is in a way, a type of dog training technique, and the same rule applies for every type of dog training; it is always best to start in a familiar environment and then move on from there.
Too often we forget that we are part of a team with our dog and we are an equally important link in our dog’s behaviors. Dogs react to our energy and body signals more than we are even consciously aware of. How many times does it happen that an experienced handler and a superbly trained dog fail on the day of competition, just because of a glitch in their communication?
Even though we all think that “down” means the down command, to our dog it is more in the way that the command is delivered than the word itself. Knowing this will help us through the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process when you are dealing with your dog’s behavior problems.
The fact is that no one likes or feels comfortable when their dog starts to act up. Most people either react overwhelmed, emitting a lower type of energy, sending the “oh no, here we go again” attitude, or they get excited, frustrated and almost angry in the hopes of controlling or containing the situation, but it becomes impossible to stay focused and controlled. No one is immune, but how we react in those moments is what counts, as that is the message that you are sending to your dog.
Staying calm is imperative at those times. You are the one who will help your dog in dealing with his behavior problems, no matter if you go down or up emotionally, the fact that you changed your behavior is a flag to your dog that something is wrong and that he should respond to the situation. Removing your energy from the equation will help him calm down sooner.
You can also train your dog to stay calm. Now these training techniques work for some dogs, and not for all, but even if you make the slightest progress, it can help you and your dog in the future. The secret here is to reinforce the calming behaviors when your dog is offering them throughout normal everyday situations.
It may be difficult for some, to use the clicker or marker training techniques when trying to capture calm behaviors, as this technique will often spark the dog’s excitement to work, which will defy the purpose of marking your dog’s calm state. To avoid this you can simply give him a treat unexpectedly when your dog is in this calm state and then move on, without marking it verbally.
Another option is pairing a certain verbal signal (verbal cue) with the relaxed state. For example, praising your dog in a slow, calm and relaxing manner while he lies calmly next to you. Later, you can use this verbal signal during situations to help your dog calm down.
Don’t expect magic to happen. The purpose of this is to send your dog contradictory signals to his reaction in a certain situation. Your dog will calm down faster if he can see that you are “practicing” calmness.
There are many other ways that you can try to understand dog calming signals and how to help your dog calm down. If you are interested in this subject I can recommend a couple of dog trainers and experts who have made huge advances in this field. They are Turid Rugaas (from Norway) and Emma Parsons; you can find a lot of material both online and through published books, by these two experts, that may help you in creating a better communication with your dog.
Desensitizing and counter-conditioning is a process that every dog owner should become familiar with, as every dog has issues at some point in his life with something. This process is a great tool and is often the easiest way for your dog, in helping him overcome these issues.