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, I witnessed an insouciant Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) from another dog training South Florida company showing his clients how to make their dog get over his fear of people by forcing the dog to “walk” (although the dog was literally skidding) by dragging him by a pronged collar, across a jammed packed Lincoln Road Mall in South Beach, on a spring break weekend. Through this dog “trainers” pernicious approach, it was all too clear for anyone to see that the dog was nervous, fearful, very uncomfortable and now likely in pain. What this “trainer” was doing was engaging the dog in an exposure therapy technique by flooding the dog. “Flooding is a psychotherapeutic method for overcoming phobias. Flooding is a faster (yet less efficient and 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, happiness and life.2

Which would you choose? If 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 while snakes were dumped all over you, or would it be more comfortable and effective to have someone from a hundred yards away hold a snake and present you with a wonderful reward every time you looked at the snake. Eventually inching the snake (stimulus) closer and closer to you while pairing your looking at the snake, with a lack of fear, with your favorite treat in the world every time you looked at the snake? We would choose the latter, including nonhuman animals. The process of desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) should seem painfully boring, and like watching the grass grow, otherwise, you are probably doing it incorrectly. Graduation is the key. The number one reason for the failure of a desensitization and counterconditioning program is expediency and impatience. As with life, great things come to those who wait, and patience is a virtue. This is precisely why proper desensitization and counterconditioning doesn’t make great television or a reality show.  This is why propaganda focuses on sensationalism and the capitalist executives choose people like Cesar Millan to kick, intimidate, bully, choke, punch and flood dogs. It is a shame that this pandemic and the delusional psychosis that plagues humanity affects the way people treat their pets. Would you take tips on how to teach or raise your child by watching the Jerry Springer show? It seems many uneducated people and dog trainers love drama, expediency and ephemeral results even at the expense of innocent pets.

 scared dog

Most Important In Desensitization & Counterconditioning

One critical aspect about 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 drunken college spring breakers and tons of dogs, shoppers and the like, as was this dog trainer I was observing, it is impossible to have any control over the environment and you are setting your pup up for failure and for the 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 the responsible and knowledgeable pet parent, dog trainer and behaviorist to create and choose the appropriate environment and circumstances to assuage the dog and enable the most advantageous outcome for success. I would no sooner recommend doing what this dog “trainer” did then I would suggest dropping a phobic dog in the middle of Times Square to cure them of their fear of people, or by dumping a bucket of snakes on a tied up person.

Using Dog Training Resources Correctly

Crowded roadways may be a great resource to desensitize and countercondition 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 show no physiological stress or fear responses and feel comfortable.  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 (rational or irrational) and the stimuli and making the physiological stress response stronger! This is your responsibility as an educated Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), don’t mess it up.

I subscribe to Albert Einstein’s theory “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” With that said I hope my young niece understands this post. 🙂


Desensitization and Counterconditioning