We are committed to provide service 24 X 7

Deals, Shopping, Training, Tools

Desensitisation and Counterconditioning in Dogs

Counter conditioning and desensitization are powerful ways to change behavior. They are usually used in combination. Just like humans, dogs have rich emotional lives, and those emotions can drive their behavior. When your dog is feeling positive, it might lead to overexuberance or distraction – annoying but relatively harmless. However, when the underlying feelings are negative, like anxiety or fear, that can be downright dangerous.

When the problem is rooted in how a dog feels about a particular thing, it isn’t enough to just teach him a different behavior—like sit instead of lunge and growl. What’s most effective is treatment that will change the way he feels about something. This treatment will eliminate the underlying reason for the behavior problem in the first place.


Desensitisation is changing the emotional response of the dog from fear, aggression, obsession, etc. to no reaction at all. We then use counter conditioning to change that to a good association. They practice this in humans who have phobias of things like spiders, it is very effective but takes a lot of commitment. The important thing when using desensitisation is not to do something we call “flooding”.

Counter Conditioning

Counter Conditioning is changing a reaction to a stimulus so, for example, asking your dog to look at you every time they see another dog then rewarding. Your dog will start to automatically look at you when they see another dog. This can be used in many different scenarios, right down to your dog understanding when their food bowl comes out they must sit even if you don’t ask.

Combining The Two

Desensitization is often combined with counterconditioning because it’s almost impossible to teach a positive association to something if the dog is actively experiencing fear or showing aggression. So we expose the animal to a weak version of the feared or disliked thing (desensitization). And proceed to give him delicious treats (counterconditioning). Over many exposures, the thing is gradually made stronger er and always followed immediately with treats.

Identify the Correct Stimulus

For desensitization and counterconditioning to be effective, the stimulus used to reproduce the conditions in which the animal experiences fear must be one to which the animal responds with the undesired behavior.

For some animals, the stimulus is quite specific. To use the example of noise phobia, it is important to confirm, before beginning treatment, that the pet exhibits a fear response to the sound that will be used as the stimulus.

Some common factors to consider include location, loudness, distance, speed of movement. Others include, length of time near the other animal or person, response of the other animal or person, and body postures of the animal or person who induces fear or aggression.

Understanding the Stress Response

When your dog is faced with a trigger that is too close for comfort, the negative emotions they experience set off a stress response in the body. The physiological changes that happen next are involuntary, meaning your dog has no control over them.

During a stress response, adrenaline and cortisol are released into the blood stream. These hormones cause your dog to experience a range of INVOLUNTARY physiological responses. Their heart beats faster, their rate of breathing increases, their blood pressure rises.

The adrenaline in their system causes tiny airways in the lungs to open wider, allowing more oxygen into the body. Heightened alertness and greater sensitivity to sights and sounds follow, as does an elevated startle response.

Making a Training Plan

This is a very important step. The better your plan is, the fewer issues that you will encounter during the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process. Making a plan involves;

Creating levels

Every plan will have to be broken down into levels. Depending on the issue, the dog’s temperament, etc. these factors will all determine the number of levels and if necessary, or other improvisation in order to help your dog get through each one. What is important about each level is the distance. Although there are no rules set in stone about this, it is more of a personal choice. This is based on the dog, the stressors, the environment, etc.

Organizing environments

One of the first things about this process; is that once you decide to go through with desensitizing and counter-conditioning, you will need to organize your daily routines and environment. It will prevent getting into situations where your dog will be exposed to the triggering stimulus which will result in fear/anxiety responses. The only time that you want your dog exposed to this, during the process, is when you have set up a controlled rehabilitation scenario, or are in control of the situation.

You are working on changing your dog’s feelings (or emotional response) in certain situations and exposing your dog to those same scenarios in which he gets “over the edge” will only set you backward in your process.

Creating situations

Since the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process is a form of classical conditioning, in order for it to work, the dog needs a certain number of successful repetitions. This will be your toughest challenge. You need to create situations where your dog will be exposed to a stimulus at a certain distance for “x” number of repetitions before moving to the next level.

This is a time consuming process that may require the help of other people, other dogs, etc. This can be difficult to organize and requires a lot of patience. While going through the different levels, so many people mistakenly tend to try to rush things through. If you end up rushing, you will face problems. This will require taking a step or a few steps back to the last previously successful level.

Avoid Flooding

Many of the things that cause anxiety and fear in dogs are unavoidable. So, what can you do? You could force your dog to face their fear head on. For example, you could take a dog with a fear of other dogs and plop them in the middle of a busy dog park. This is known as flooding.

If nothing bad happened in the dog park, your dog might come to feel differently about other dogs. However, it’s usually not that easy. It’s far more likely the experience will backfire, and your dog will end up even more frightened.

Don’t Go Beyond The Threshold

If you notice your dog becoming apprehensive or concerned at any point during the above systematic desensitization and counterconditioning 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.


Your Cart is Empty

Back To Shop