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The essentials

  • Determine what’s provoking your pet — From there, you can create a well-thought-out training plan for positive association.
  • Desensitization and counterconditioning training isn’t linear — This type of training requires patience and sometimes your pet may not progress in line with your expectations, which can be very normal.
  • Keep track of your dog’s progress and reward milestones — It’s important to help them associate the appropriate behavior with good things rather than bad.

When it comes to dog training, there is no single solution for pet parents. Every dog is unique, and some respond to training in much different ways than others. Ultimately, the most common goal of all dog owners is to create a happy and healthy life for their furry friends, and sometimes it takes different approaches before achieving success.

Read on to learn more about dog desensitization and canine counterconditioning, and how these training techniques can help you and your pet forge a better bond together.

What is desensitization in dogs?

Systematic desensitization is a form of behavioral modification that begins with exposing your dog to their fears, such as vacuum cleaners, cars, other dogs, visitors, or other triggers at low levels. Over time, you gradually increase the intensity of the exposure. The trigger should be controlled and only increased in intensity as long as your pet shows no sign of fear.

The goal of desensitization is to expose your dog to their trigger(s) enough and in the least stressful way possible. Eventually, they should be no longer sensitive to the trigger and can be around or in the presence of it without adverse reactions.

What is counterconditioning in dogs?

Unique from desensitization training,  the use of counterconditioning completely alters the negative emotions or behavior that goes along with a stimulus by associating the trigger with something positive. This can range from verbal praise to petting/scratching or toys and treats. You might have heard of classical conditioning for humans , and this process isn’t much different!

What the rewards actually are should be determined by what will produce a new positive response or positive action in your furry friend. Some dogs are food-motivated, so having their favorite treats on hand can make the process easier.

On the other hand, some dogs value toys or attention over treats.  It’s important to note that sometimes what your pet values may change over the course of training and thus, you need to adjust the effectiveness of the counter to maintain this new emotional response.

What is response substitution?

Response substitution is a form of behavior modification focused on training a pet to exhibit an alternate behavior in place of an undesirable behavior. For example, if your pet likes to jump on visitors when they come through the door, the response substitution to the jumping could be teaching your dog to stay, sit, lay down, or go to another room when visitors arrive.

This technique should be used for behaviors that are a low emotional response like jumping, excessive barking, or licking, and not used for more aggressive behaviors like biting or lunging.

Where desensitization and counterconditioning differ

desensitization counter-conditioning
Process of building up your dog’s calmness threshold Process of reteaching your pet to have a pleasant reaction to stimulus
Uses gradual exposure to change behavior Uses positive reinforcement to change behavior

When to use these training techniques

Desensitization and counterconditioning can be used whenever you notice recurring fear, anxiety, or aggression within your pet. Anything that elicits an extreme or unpleasant response, whether that be fear or excitement, may be a reason to consider behavioral training to help your pet return to a calm, comfortable state.

Creating a desensitization and counterconditioning plan

One of the most important things to remember when using these techniques is consistency. Changing behavior in humans can take time and dogs are no different, so don’t expect significant changes after training for a single time. In order not to confuse your pet, be sure to have a schedule in place and set a plan on how to introduce stimuli and the levels at which they’re introduced.

Oftentimes, a pet’s inability to progress further in a training plan such as this comes down to the owner pushing the pet past their threshold. Also make sure you know what types of rewards your pet prioritizes, whether that be peanut butter, other high-value treats, verbal praise or personal touch (which are readily available!), or long walks, are important to identify.

1 . Assessing your pet

Everyone needs a starting point, and the first step here is to identify what is triggering your pet. Sometimes this body language can be easy to detect, especially if your dog exhibits a typical fear response like cowering, cringing, hiding, or putting their ears back. Other times, you may need to look closer because some less common responses of a fearful dog can look like whining, hard stares, or overactive behavior like excessive panting or pacing.

2 . Identifying the desired behavior

Now that you know what their fear response looks like, what would you like the preferred behavior to be when they’re confronted with the stimulus? Do you want them to sit? Go into another room? Look at you for reassurance?

3 . Getting started

Once you can recognize what fear looks like in your pet, you can plan out steps to help them overcome it. For example, if your dog is afraid of fireworks, start by playing the sounds of the fireworks on a video from the internet at a lower volume than what an actual firework would sound like. You already know what triggers your dog, so start smaller, farther away, and quieter than the actual trigger.

4 . Increasing the stimulus

Gradually over time, you can increase the volume of the videos so long as your pet is comfortable and not responding negatively, thus increasing the intensity of the stimulus. When they respond with the desired behavior, you can reward them with their reinforcer of choice to further cement the behavior.

Training in uncontrolled situations

While the example above can be controlled within reason, sometimes you and your pet may be in situations where their trigger is present without warning. Always keep your pet’s reward on hand in case one such situation appears.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but remain calm and support your pet through this time by giving them their reward until the trigger is no longer present. During this training period, if unforeseen situations occur, it’s important to diffuse the situation by gaining distance between your pet and the scary stimulus.

Common training mistakes to avoid

  • Moving too quickly. Remember that slow and steady is best for this type of training. Small changes are the best way to succeed in behavior modification and while such small steps may seem futile, they’re the building blocks of this training format.
  • Not using the right reinforcer. When enticing your dog to overcome their fears and adopt a new behavior, use what reinforcer they will respond best to whether that be food or verbal affirmations.
  • Pushing too hard. If you push your pet to confront stimuli that they aren’t ready for, you can end up doing more harm than good and potentially make their behavior worse.
  • Stopping too soon. Consistency is important and if you stop too soon, your pet’s undesirable response that you’ve worked so hard to get under control might come back.
  • Not knowing your dog’s feelings. It’s important to know what your dog’s behavior looks like when they’re scared or excited from their ear position to how their tail wags.

Reasons why dogs may need training

Behavioral training is not necessarily a need for all dogs. However, signs of aggression, separation anxiety, chewing, lip licking, or extreme fear from stimuli that they’ll regularly come into contact with, like dogs or people, may warrant training.

Behavioral training vs. obedience training

Behavioral training like desensitization and counterconditioning is used to confront bad habits by rewiring your dog’s negative response to what triggers them. Even when no one is around, your pet will still respond with their learned behaviors regardless of the lack of command or direction to do so.

Obedience training underscores the importance of commands that your dog follows to produce a desired action, such as “come,” “sit,” or “fetch.” These actions require a command or hand signal to be followed.

When to seek professional help

Not all pet owners can get through to their dogs using desensitization and counterconditioning at home, which is okay! Sometimes, your pet needs a specially trained professional to help handle their behavioral concerns.

Certified dog trainers and veterinary behaviorists can help you through the process to ensure success. At the end of the day, we want our furry friends to be stress-free and happy, and sometimes getting help is the only way to do that.

A pet that requires behavioral training isn’t “bad,” but is rather letting you know how they feel about a situation. Desensitization training and the counter-conditioning process can be an effective path forward for both you and your dog and acknowledging that your pet may need help is an important step to achieving the main goal of altering your dog’s unwanted behavior.

Frequently asked questions

Isn’t this behavior typical for a dog?

Your dog should never be feeling emotional extremes consistently. These behaviors may come off as quirky or cute, but they still warrant intervention. For example, do they hide from the vacuum cleaner? While handy because your pup is out of the way during cleaning, it’s your dog’s response that matters, and adopting a behavior modification technique may be the only way to alter your dog’s association for the betterment of their health.

How will I know if the training is working?

Training takes time and patience, especially if you’re confronting a difficult behavior like biting. You’ll know your training sessions are working if your pet is no longer triggered by the stimuli or showing undesirable behavior and less reactivity, but you should be consistent with your training, even after your pet has overcome their unwanted responses.

What’s the science behind this type of training?

While humans have people like Mary Cover Jones to thank for behavioral therapy, Ivan Pavlov was the first to introduce the idea of counterconditioning and operant conditioning in dogs to elicit a specific response using the scientific method to better understand their behavior and needs. As we now know, desensitization helps dogs gradually get used to things that trigger maladaptive behavior, such as loud noises. This process involves exposing them slowly to what makes them nervous. Counterconditioning, through repetition, helps turn the scary stuff into positive experiences by associating it with treats or play. This approach, rooted in the conditioning process, proves effective when used properly in helping dogs overcome fears and develop a new association.

How long do I train my pet for?

This depends entirely on your dog’s emotional response.  Some pets can require anywhere from 3-8 weeks of consistent daily training to overcome their triggers, while other pups may need upwards of 12 months. It’s important to consult with trained experts to best understand your individual dog’s needs and what the ideal sweet spot for their training will be.

What if my dog gets triggered after we’ve already trained?

It’s possible for your dog to regress, but don’t be discouraged! Continue with your training plan but be aware of if your dog is triggered by new stimuli and if the positive reinforcements are still working. Perhaps your dog has become bothered by something new or the reinforcer is no longer desired. In either case, reevaluate and refocus.

Will my dog get over their fear on their own?

Think about times when you’ve had a negative experience with something be it loud noises, certain animals, or places. It can be a scary thing to be faced with a given stimulus that you know makes you uncomfortable. While it may be easier for you to avoid the presentation of the stimulus, you still have that latent fear or discomfort of it. On the other hand, your dog goes where you go and can’t avoid their fear, which is why it can be helpful to get training.

How can I tell if my dog needs this training?

Suppose your dog is exhibiting concerning behavior that may put themselves or others in danger or discomfort. In that case, it’s important to consider behavioral training or another dog training technique to get your dog’s emotions in check. Does your dog lunge or bark at other dogs on walks or at the dog park? Do they shiver in fear during thunderstorms? Do they go to the bathroom anytime someone new walks into the house? These are all behaviors that may warrant intervention to ensure a stress-free existence.

Plus, this type of training can be used in conjunction with other methods. If your dog tends to pull on walks, which can be dangerous to both dog and owner, you can adopt different types of leads or collars to help, like a head halter, in conjunction with behavioral training.

Can this sort of training be used for my cat?

Yes! With certain modifications, of course. Check out our resources on cat training for tips on getting started.