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Changing Feelings, Reducing Fears: Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

Classical and operant conditioning aren't the only tools in a trainer's kit. We often include desensitization and counterconditioning, sometimes separately, sometimes together, in a training or behavior modification program. Desensitization is a form of exposure therapy where we introduce dogs to triggers at a low intensity that gradually increases over time. Counterconditioning works much like classical conditioning, creating new associations by pairing stimuli. But in this case, one of the stimuli already carries an association for the dog that we want to change.

Here’s an example in human terms: let’s say you’re afraid of spiders. To desensitize you to spiders a therapist might show you a cartoon drawing of a spider from across the room. If you feel calm at the sight of that cartoon spider, your therapist might ask if you would like to hold the drawing. From there you and your therapist would slowly build your exposure to spiders from that cartoon drawing, to a photo, to a video of a spider moving, and to a spider outside the office. Eventually you might feel safe enough from the slow desensitization process that when you notice a spider building a web in the corner of your therapist’s office, you feel no revulsion or fear.

If your therapist wanted to incorporate counterconditioning to help you with your arachnophobia, they could pair the picture of the spider with something you enjoy like a piece of chocolate (or for me, a tater tot!). In dogs we do the same thing (not with chocolate or tater tots). We present the trigger at low intensity and then we give the dog a high value treat.

With a dog who fears other dogs, for example, I often begin the training process using a stuffed dog and working from a long distance, monitoring the dog's body language for any signs of stress. Over time, as the dog desensitizes to the form of the stuffed dog, we can introduce real dogs, returning to a safe distance and working through the process again. Separation anxiety training works this way—leaving the dog for incrementally longer periods while watching for any signs of stress.

Easy training games can help with the counterconditioning process because they engage the dog's mind and provide a rapid rate of reinforcement--lots of treats in a short time span! Once a dog is ready, we might go to a park where a few dogs are playing, position ourselves at a safe distance and then start playing a training game. Taking our cue from the dog, we could move slowly closer to the other dogs, still playing the games.

With patience, careful attention to a dog’s body language, and a solid training plan, we can use desensitization and counterconditioning to help our dogs feel better about the things that scare or worry them.

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