What is Counterconditioning And Desensitization For Dogs?
On a very basic level, counterconditioning and desensitization (D/CC) are about associating something incredibly rewarding with anything or anyone in life that is scary or that elicits fear. Turning a dog’s fear into fantastic!
Or more scientifically, systematic desensitization is a type of exposure therapy based on the principle of classical conditioning.
Counterconditioning is when a dog is taught a new association that is to counter the original behavior learned.
This new response and emotions associated with it are typically relaxation and happiness.
This works because dogs are associative learners and a dog can’t be relaxed and happy at the same time as hyper-vigilant and fearful thanks to reciprocal inhibition.
How To Counter-Condition A Dog (5 Easy Steps)
- Introduce a fear-evoking stimulus in a controlled environment at a very low volume and/or great enough distance to the scary thing
- Pair that stimulus with the highest food reward
- 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
- After the stimulus elicits a positive emotional response from your dog (AKA, your dog is happy) increase the volume/sound of the stimulus and/or decrease your distance to the stimulus in very small graduated increments
- Rinse and repeat
Always evaluate your proximity to the stimulus and the amplitude of the stimulus.
Pro Tip 1 – 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, (over their threshold of fear) immediately stop. Either increase your distance to the scary thing and/or lower the volume of the scary sound by two decibels. Then proceed to introduce the stimulus again, but this time in even smaller increments of amplitude and/or proximity.
Pro Tip 2 – Keep in mind that amplitude and proximity do not cover all of a dog’s senses. Amplitude refers to a dog’s auditory function and their ability to hear, and proximity refers primarily to a dog’s visual sense and the stimulus spacial relationship to a dog measured by a dog’s site.
In addition to these two senses, 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. Only then can you change your dog’s conditioned emotional response to the stimulus (CER).
How To Desensitize A Dog (To Any Stimulus)
But first, let’s discuss desensitization.
Desensitization is the gradual exposure of a stimulus that elicits a reduction in a dog’s response to that stimulus.
Exposing a dog to the full exposure to a stimulus would often be too intense and take too long for a desensitization protocol to be effective.
Therefore, to make desensitizing easier, try to introduce the stimulus at a low enough sound, and/or distance to the dog so that your dog remains calm and relaxed.
For a real-life example let’s discuss desensitizing your dog to their leash before going for a dog walk. Here is one example many pet parents struggle with:
I keep my dog’s leash in a drawer and every time I walk anywhere near the drawer my dog gets aroused because she’s associated the drawer (or that entire area of the house) with going for walk.
You could open the drawer fully and grab the leash but that wouldn’t be gradual and your dog will be in a full state of arousal, so instead,
- Walk by the drawer with the lease in it a few dozens of times a day without touching the drawer. Wait until after your dog stops getting aroused, is relaxed, and/or ignores you when you walk past the drawer.
- Then open and close the drawer every time you walk past it. (Don’t get anything out of the drawer yet, just open and close it, ignoring your dog.) Do this a few dozen times. Wait until after your dog is ignoring your opening and closing the leash drawer.
- Then open the drawer and take your dog’s leash out, and put it around your neck as you would a necklace.
- Wear your dog’s leash around the house for the day. Jingling it and holding it in both hands occasionally and keep going about your business. Wait until your dog is no longer aroused by the sight of you wearing her leash or handling the leash around the house.
- Now put all of the steps together by walking to the drawer, opening the drawer, and putting the leash around your neck a few dozen times. Wait until your dog is ignoring you and relaxed.
- Attach the leash to your dog and then drop the leash on the floor. Don’t take her out yet.
- Now that the leash is attached to your dog, allow your dog to drag the leash around the house (under supervision) until they settle down and relax.
- After your dog realizes that wearing the leash does not signal they are going outside for a walk then you can try putting your shoes on as well and picking up the leash to walk her inside of the house.
- Eventually, when she is calm with you walking her on the inside of your house you can take her for a walk outside.
This example goes further than most people need to go in order to desensitize a dog to their leash, but you can do less or be more creative. The point of desensitization is to relax your dog in the presence of a stimulus. In the above example, as long as your dog is calm and relaxed when you take them outside, you are ready to go.
The reason we do this is that a dog who is in a high state of anxiety or arousal before they even step foot outside is likely to stay that way for a while. Whereas, a dog who is relaxed prior to walking outside will likely stay that way for a while.
How To Tell If A Dog Is Over Their Threshold Of Fear
If your dog is what trainers call, over their threshold of fear, desensitizing and counterconditioning won’t work and may backfire. This simply means your dog is not in a thinking and learning mind state (parasympathetic side of the brain) and is instead in a fight-flight or freeze mind state (sympathetic side of the brain).
When your dog is in the latter, management is called for and not training or D/CC.
Only when your dog is in the thinking and learning operant side of their brain (parasympathetic) can you train a dog or ask them to respond to an already known cue.
The sympathetic side of the brain calls for management and for you to immediately create more distance to the scary thing and/or to lower the volume of the scary sound (or both)
The parasympathetic side of the brain calls for thinking, problem-solving, and learning. This is when you would train with your dog.
Knowing the difference between a management moment and a training moment is vital to any dog and parent succeeding with desensitization and counterconditioning.
How to tell which side your dog is on is simple. Call your dog’s name or ask them for an easy cue they already know very well. Such as Sit.
If your dog hesitates, does not hear you or listen on the first iteration or respond immediately to either their name or a cue they already know, management is needed.
If on the other hand, your dog responds immediately either by sitting or by looking at you when you call their name, your dog is ready to learn and you can start or continue the D/CC protocol.
Protip 3 – You will inevitably be treading on somewhere in between your dog responding and not responding to you. As you navigate this grey area, use your judgment as to whether you move closer to the stimulus or further away. I would err on the side of comfort and move further away as a dog will learn quicker and counter-conditioning will be paired faster this way.
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 under stimulus control.
Sound stimuli would be impossible (or extremely difficult) to D/CC without technology. Is your dog reactive or afraid of a knock at the door, a doorbell ring, a vacuum cleaner, honking horns, a 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.
Simply 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.
Pro Tip 4– A dog’s ears and perception of sounds are different than a person’s. Use the best speakers/stereo equipment possible to play the sounds and record the sound in high definition, full lossless files to get the best results from your D/CC protocols or your efforts might not be as fruitful in real life.
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. While dog training in Beverly Hills I witnessed a dog “trainer” showing his client how to “flood” 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 terrified 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 are the key. The number one reason people fail at implementing systematic desensitization and counterconditioning protocol is 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.
- You’re 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 to 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 a dog’s anxiety, fear, and stress, and beyond your puppy’s fear threshold.
Stay below your pup’s fear threshold and have an escape route or a safe zone. If you notice your dog showing the least bit of fear or discomfort, 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.