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What Is Counterconditioning & Desensitization?
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Having a dog that's afraid can be stressful. Unfortunately, dogs can be afraid of any number of things for any number of reasons. For example, many dogs fear fireworks, thunderstorms, and the vet. Other dogs have more extreme levels of fearfulness. Due to a lack of training and socialization at a young age, some dogs experience fear-based aggression toward other pets and strangers.
If your dog is barking and lunging on a leash when they see another dog or cowering behind you at the vet, they may benefit from counterconditioning and desensitization. These behavior modification techniques can help them display more desirable behavior and build more positive associations with something that was once scary to them. But what are counterconditioning and desensitization, and can they really help your fearful dog? Keep reading to learn more about these training techniques for anxious dogs.
- Defining Counterconditioning & Desensitization
- What Are They Used For?
- Training Tips: Counterconditioning & Desensitization
- Final Notes
Defining Counterconditioning & Desensitization
So what are desensitization and counterconditioning? Simply put, they're behavioral modification techniques used to help fearful dogs become less fearful.
Counterconditioning refers to changing how a dog responds to a certain trigger, while desensitization teaches a dog to overcome its fears by exposing it to stimuli gradually.
You've most likely heard of classical conditioning and Pavlov's dogs, in which Ivan Pavlov conditioned his dogs to salivate upon hearing the ringing of a bell because they associated the bell with feeding time.
Counterconditioning works the same way; it conditions a dog to respond to a certain stimulus or trigger in a certain way. Desensitization and counterconditioning are used for fearful dogs. Still, the process is slow and gradual because the goal is to desensitize the dog and help them form a positive association with a fear-inducing stimulus.1
For counterconditioning and desensitization to be successful, pet parents must know their dog's triggers. Additionally, pet parents must have a stable bond with their pets to make them feel more confident.1
So what is counterconditioning? It changes a dog's emotional response toward a certain trigger. An example of counterconditioning would be a dog that barks and lunges at other dogs on walks due to fear. In this case, counterconditioning would aim to change how the dog responds to seeing another dog on a walk by making them associate seeing a dog with something more positive, such as getting a treat.
One critical thing to remember is that counterconditioning requires you to prevent exposure to the trigger that might lead to a negative outcome. For example, if you're trying to condition your dog not to bark and lunge at other dogs on walks, they shouldn't pass closely by other dogs on walks. Instead, you would keep your dog at a distance that elicits no response.
What is desensitization? Counterconditioning changes your dog's emotional response to a trigger. Desensitization aims to gradually expose them to the trigger at a low level when there's no response and gradually increase the exposure over time to help the dog become less reactive. For example, in the case of the dog who barks and lunges at other dogs on walks, the handler would keep a dog at a distance that elicits no response, reward them for being calm, and gradually reduce the distance between the dogs.
While the key to counterconditioning is to prevent exposure that may result in a negative outcome that could cause the dog more anxiety and stress, the key to desensitization is knowing your dog's threshold. The threshold is when they are no longer calm and have become so stressed they have a negative reaction. In our example, the threshold would be as soon as the dog experiences stiff body language and other signs of anxiety or begins barking and lunging. Ultimately, you want to keep your dog below the threshold during counterconditioning and desensitization.
What Are They Used For?
Counterconditioning and desensitization are used as a behavior modification plan to help make your dog less fearful in certain situations or around certain triggers.2 Dogs exhibit fear in several ways. Some cower and shake behind their pet parents, while others are more "reactive" and bark, lunge, snap, and demonstrate aggression. Fear-based aggression is fairly common in dogs because, like humans, dogs have a fight-or-flight response.
Many pet parents choose avoidance to prevent their dog from misbehaving on walks due to fear. If your dog is afraid of other dogs, you can't always control when you see another dog on a walk. Therefore, counterconditioning and desensitization are crucial to helping dogs change how they respond to and feel about a certain stimulus or trigger, allowing them to stay calm and reducing their overall anxiety and fear.
Now that you understand counterconditioning and desensitization, you might wonder what it looks like. We've already given you an example of a fearful dog afraid of other dogs and people on walks, but here are a few more counterconditioning examples to help you understand how behavior modification works:
- A dog is afraid of strangers in the home: Dogs can be territorial, and dogs without proper socialization training may feel like they need to protect their home from strangers. With classical conditioning, you can train your dog to behave differently toward strangers. Instead of barking at them as soon as they come in, you can teach your dog to go to their sanctuary space or a specific area of the home when strangers enter.
- Seeing dogs on walks: A dog afraid of other dogs on walks might bark and lunge. However, you can condition your dog to perform another activity to help them reduce anxiety. Instead of barking and lunging, you can teach your dog to look at you when passing another dog or have them touch their nose to your hand.
- A dog is afraid of the vet: Many dogs are afraid of the vet, but desensitization and counterconditioning can help them become less fearful and calmer to allow them to get the treatments they need. If your dog is afraid of the vet, you can take them to the vet for happy visits and practice vet visits at home with a stethoscope to get your dog more used to being examined and physically handled.
Of course, if you're an experienced pet parent, you know training a dog takes time. However, training a fearful dog can take even more time because you're trying to change their feelings about something they're afraid of. During this process, you must keep your dog below threshold and reward them for good behavior. For example, if your dog is afraid of strangers in the home, you can give them a treat any time they see strangers to make it a more positive experience for them.
Training Tips: Counterconditioning & Desensitization
Counterconditioning and desensitization are time-consuming, but it's well worth it for dogs that experience fear-based aggression. Believe it or not, any time you see a dog barking or lunging at you or another dog on the street, it's likely because they're afraid. However, pet parents can reduce their fear and change how their dogs respond to certain stimuli by investing a few minutes a day in behavior modification training.
Here are some training tips to help:
- Always have rewards: Many dogs are highly motivated by food, so having treats with you at all times can help you train your dog. For example, if your dog is sound-sensitive and you live in an apartment, you can toss your dog a treat whenever they hear a sound to help them associate bangs, knocks, and door slams with a positive feeling. Additionally, you should always have treats on a walk in case the trigger appears. Feeding them treats while moving by something scary can help distract them and reward them for good behavior. Of course, you should ensure your dog is below the threshold because they're less likely to take treats from you if they reach it.2
- Keep your dog under threshold: Behavior modification only works if a dog is under threshold because after they reach their threshold, they won't listen to you or take treats from your hand. Unfortunately, pet parents and trainers sometimes move too quickly, and a dog may become fearful. However, if this happens, you must increase the distance between your dog and their trigger to help them calm down. Once they're calm, you can give them a treat.
- Practice: Behavior modification only works if you practice it. Luckily, there are several ways you can practice behavior modification at home. For example, if your dog is afraid of other dogs, you can work with a family dog and another handler to help them feel more comfortable around them. Meanwhile, you can work from a window to provide your dog with a safe space.
- Be patient: Moving too quickly can be detrimental for dogs. Flooding is when you expose your dog too quickly to the stimulus and force them to face their fears.3 Flooding can become dangerous because your dog will go over their threshold, which might cause them to become aggressive. For example, if your dog is afraid of other dogs, they can display fearful or aggressive dog park behavior. They shouldn't visit a dog park because they could hurt themselves, a pet parent, or another dog. Flooding can cause your dog to become more fearful because it's too overwhelming for them.3
- Never punish your dog: You should never punish your dog when they act out due to fear. If your dog barks and lunges at someone on the sidewalk, you may be tempted to scold them. However, yelling at them can make their fear worse and make them build a negative association with the trigger.1
Caring for a fearful dog can be stressful, but there are several ways you can reduce your dog's fear and modify their behavior to make anxiety-inducing situations less stressful for you and your pet. Behaviorists and dog trainers worldwide use counterconditioning and desensitization to help make fearful dogs calmer.Of course, some dogs are extremely fearful, which can cause aggression. If you're worried about your dog's fearful behavior, they may benefit from anxiety medication to supplement their training and help them stay calm around their triggers. Worried about your dog's fear-based behavioral issues? Talk to a Dutch vet today to learn how to treat dog anxiety.
"Your Dog's Fear UC Davis." UC Davis, Veterinary Medicine, https://healthtopics.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/sites/g/files/dgvnsk6721/files/inline-files/Your-Dogs-Fear.pdf.
"Managing Reactive Behavior." Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 21 Dec. 2022, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/riney-canine-health-center/health-info/managing-reactive-behavior.
Stephanie Gibeault, MSc. "Changing Your Dog's Behavior with Desensitization & Counterconditioning." American Kennel Club, 2 Nov. 2020, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/changing-your-dogs-behavior-with-desensitization-and-counter-conditioning/.