How to Desensitize and Countercondition a Dog in 5 Easy Steps

  1. Introduce a fear evoking stimulus in a controlled environment at a very low amplitude and or proximity
  2. Pair that stimulus with a very high food reward
  3. Do this for several iterations until you see your dog’s emotion change, from unsure/concerned to happy/excited when hearing, seeing or sensing the stimulus at the same very low levels of intensity
  4. After the stimulus is eliciting a positive emotional response from your dog (your dog is happy) increase the amplitude and or proximity of the stimulus in very small graduated increments
  5. Rinse and repeat

The caveat is if you notice your dog becoming apprehensive or concerned at any point during the above systematic desensitization and counterconditioning (SD/CC) protocol, immediately stop and go back in amplitude and or proximity two-steps and proceed to introduce the stimulus this time in even smaller increments of amplitude and or proximity.

The second caveat is that amplitude and proximity do not cover all of a dog’s senses. Amplitude is referring to a dog’s auditory function and their ability to hear, and proximity is referring primarily to a dog’s visual sense, and the stimulus spacial relationship to a dog measured by a dog’s site. However, keep in mind you might also be working with your dog’s body and tactile relationship to a stimulus, a gustatory and taste relationship or your dog’s olfactory and smell of a stimulus. Regardless of which of your dog’s senses you are working with, the underlying goal of SD/CC is to reverse the unwanted (emotional and behavioral) effects of prior conditioning to a stimulus, while a dog is relaxed and comfortable.

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Desensitization, Counterconditioning & Controlling Stimuli

As a dog trainer in Los Angeles, I am keenly aware of other dogs in my environment. Just recently while out for a walk in Beverly Hills I witnessed a “dog trainer” showing his clients how to force their dog to get over his fear of people by forcing the dog to walk (although the dog was forcibly being pulled) by dragging him by a pronged collar, across a busy sidewalk. It was all too clear for anyone to see that the dog was terrified and now likely in pain. What this “trainer” was doing was engaging the dog in an exposure therapy technique called flooding. “Flooding is a psychotherapeutic method for overcoming phobias. Flooding may be a faster (yet less efficient and much more traumatic) method of ridding fears when compared with systematic desensitization.”1 Flooding a dog is not a humane, ethical nor the most effective tool that a dog trainer has to educate his 4 or 2 legged friends, but it may save the client money and time at the expense of their dog’s health (emotional, physical and mental), happiness and life.2

To help explain flooding as it pertains to us, imagine that you were deathly afraid of snakes, would it help you get over that fear if you were locked in a room, tied to a chair, and snakes are placed all over you, or would it be more comfortable and effective to have someone present a snake from a hundred yards away where you had a neutral response to seeing the snake, then immediately pair your seeing of the snake with a wonderful food reward every time you? Eventually inching the snake (stimulus) closer and closer to you while pairing your calm gaze at the snake, with your favorite reward in the world. Which scenario would you choose? The process of systematic desensitization and counterconditioning (SD/CC) should seem painfully boring, like watching grass grow if you’re doing it correctly. Graduation and relaxation is the key. The number one reason people fail at implementing systematic desensitization and counterconditioning protocol is expediency and impatience. As with life, great things come to those who wait, and patience is a virtue. This is precisely why humane and ethical desensitization and counterconditioning doesn’t make great television or a reality show.

 scared dog

Most Important In Desensitization & Counterconditioning

One critical aspect of desensitization and counterconditioning is choosing an environment where you can control the stimulus to the best of your ability as to systemically and slowly desensitize and countercondition your pet. If you are surrounded by lots of dogs, shoppers, cars and the like, as was the dog trainer mentioned above, it is impossible to have any control over the environment and you are setting your puppy up for failure and for the emotion and behavior to become sensitized, more ingrained and stronger, not ameliorated.

A core tenet of dog training is to set your dog up for success, not failure. It is up to you and the help of a competent Certified dog trainer and behaviorist to create and choose the appropriate environment and circumstances to maintain a calm and relaxed dog that enables the most advantageous outcome for success.

Using Dog Training Resources Correctly

Crowded roadways may be a great resource to practice desensitizing and counterconditioning with your dog, but must be used appropriately and responsibly or you will likely set your dog back and create more stress and fear. At the very least, start in a controlled, quiet environment away from any noxious stimuli. Your dog should be comfortable and not display any physiological stress or fear responses.  You must also be able to read a dog’s body language very well to be able to detect minute changes in your dog’s posture, face, movement, tail, hair, positioning, breathing patterns…etc., which all may indicate stress, fear or when your pup is at their comfort threshold. Stay below your pups fear threshold and have an escape route or a safe zone if you notice your dog showing the least bit of fear or discomfort so you can remove them from this environment into their safe zone. This is critical as you are trying to make your pup as comfortable and confident as possible while habituating and desensitizing them to the stimuli not sensitizing them to the noxious stimuli thus strengthening the pairing of your dog’s fear and the stimuli and making the physiological stress response stronger!

SD/CC is not easy and is both a skill and an art. It can be damaging to your dog if done incorrectly. If you are unsure about what you are doing or need help, call a certified behaviorist professional.

Here are all of the dog/cat and pet products that we recommend for your family & home 

 

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flooding_(psychology)

2. http://www.parrots.org/pdfs/all_about_parrots/reference_library/behaviour_and_environmental_enrichment/Alternatives%20to%20Parrot%20Breaking.pdf