(Updated 2020)

How To Desensitize And Countercondition A Dog (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 (AKA, 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 or D/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.

Here are all of the dog products recommended for D/CC a dog

Desensitization, Counterconditioning & Controlling Stimuli

How to easily desensitize and countercondition a dog to sounds.

In order to successfully countercondition or desensitize a dog or animal to a stimulus that stimulus must be on stimulus control.

Sound stimuli would be impossible (or extremely difficult) to D/CC to without technology.  Is your dog reactive or afraid of a knock at the door, a doorbell ring, a vacuum cleaner, honking horns, telephone ringing, fireworks, thunder, etc?

To put any audible sound on stimulus control we must be able to control the volume and amplitude of the noise.

Simple take out your phone or download a recording app, and record any noise you would like to work with. If you can not replicate the noise, (thunder, fireworks, construction workers, airplanes, babies crying, etc.) simply search for the sound on Vine, Youtube, or any video search engine.

Once you have the sound on your phone recording, hook up your phone to a Bluetooth speaker, and start on the lowest volume possible so that your dog and you can barely hear it. Then begin step 1 at the beginning of this article.

What Not To Do When Desensitizing And Counterconditioning

As a dog trainer in Los Angeles, I am keenly aware of other dogs in my environment. Just recently while out for a dog training session in Beverly Hills I witnessed a dog “trainer” showing his client 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 (which you should never use), across a busy sidewalk.

It was all too clear for anyone to see that the dog was terrified and 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.”

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 a dog’s health (emotional, physical and mental), happiness and life.

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 from you, 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 don’t make great television or reality shows.

Why  Counterconditioning Doesn’t Work

The reason CC doesn’t work is that it is not applied correctly. The biggest mistakes parents  make when counterconditioning a dog are:

  • Not allowing the scary thing to predict the reward. You must allow the scary noise or thing to predict the highest value reward, not the reverse. Also, don’t end the reward before the scary thing stops.
  • Not using the highest value food reward. Explore your dog’s hierarchy of rewards with dozens of different types of foods, from dog treats to pizza. Every dog is an individual, find out what your dog goes crazy for and use this reward exclusively for CC.
  • Your over your dog’s threshold of fear. If your dog is scared it is impossible for them to learn or to be conditioned. Move away from the scary thing (create distance) and/or move away and find a way to lower the volume of the scary noise for dogs that are noise phobic.
  • Asking a dog to do a behavior (look at you, sit, down, etc.) when CC. If you’re asking your dog for a behavior you’re not CC your dog, you’re training operant behaviors. While not a bad thing, you’re also not changing the conditioned emotional response of the scary thing. Focus on CC before combining it with operants. Remember that CC is not contingent upon any behavior and that dog fear can not be reinforced.
  • Flooding a dog. As mentioned above, is a harmful exposure therapy that will shut down a dog, and elicit learned helplessness. Not cool, don’t do it.

Most Important In Desensitization And Counterconditioning

One critical aspect of desensitization and counterconditioning is choosing an environment where you can control the stimulus to the best of your ability 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 fear-free 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 Environments And 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 dog behavior and 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 fear, anxiety, and stress, and beyond your puppy’s fear 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 immediately from the scary environment and into their safe zone.

This is critical as you are trying to make your puppy 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!

Practice Conditioning Your Dog

Training and conditioning should be fun for you and your pet. Be creative in devising your plan and thinking about the stimuli that make your precious pup less than confident.

Remember the adage, “You don’t fix a leaky roof when it is pouring rain.” Pick a sunny, calm day to practice and train with your dog. Training with your dog a few times a week will have your dog looking forward, or at least not dreading the previously scary event!

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.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning Dog Training Experts

Most of the time it is wise to call a certified dog behaviorist to help with a dog’s fear, anxiety, and stress. D/CC must be done correctly or it might have the opposite effect on your dog!

See how we can help you with your fearful or reactive aggressive dog. We are experts in dog fear, anxiety and stress and changing dog behaviors.  Fill out this short form for an expert Certified Dog Behaviorist and Trainer to help you with your dog’s aggression and training today.

Here are all of the dog products recommended for D/CC a dog