Dog Behavior: Understanding the Process of Desensitization


Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Understanding the Dog Desensitization Process

How do you desensitize a dog, and how does systematic desensitization work on changing behavior in your canine companion? If you are here, most likely you own a dog that has developed a strong emotional response to certain stimuli in his environment.

Anxiety, fear, aggression or excitement may be the underlying emotions at play, while barking, lunging, pacing, snarling or shaking are the outward manifestations of such emotions. Whether your dog responds negatively to people at the door, the sight of other dogs, or thunder, the process of desensitization may be effective if you introduce it correctly and know how to increase its benefits.

So what exactly is desensitization? Desensitization is a form of behavioral therapy used in the field of human psychology, but it is effective in animals as well. Its primary function is to present the frightening stimulus in such a way that it appears less intimidating.

For instance, if you suffer from arachnophobia (fear of spiders), most likely a therapist will have you take a look at pictures of spiders; he will never start out by placing you in a bathtub full of them! This gradual approach, where the frightening stimulus is presented in a less frightening way, is what desensitization is all about.

The process of desensitizing a dog is therefore done while keeping the dog under threshold so the dog can cognitively function and the lines for learning are open. To learn more about threshold levels, please read "Understanding Threshold Levels in Dogs."

What this means is that your dog is exposed to the smallest amount of the frightening stimulus, just enough to detect and create awareness of it but without making him freak out. In other words, if you see a picture of a spider, most likely your heart will not race and you will be less likely to scream than when you have one crawling on your arm!

Sensitization and Desensitization in Dogs

How and why is a dog likely to react to certain stimuli he or she perceives as frightening/exciting/arousing? Let's imagine for instance, that your dog is a puppy. The first spring storm comes through, and he seems pretty much unfazed by the thunder. Then another storm rolls in a week later and a strong rumble of thunder startles him. About 15 minutes later, another loud rumble comes and your dog runs under the bed. Because running under the bed makes your dog feel safe, this behavior will self-reinforce.

In other words, he will continue seeking the bed now every time he hears thunder. Because the continuous rehearsal of this behavior along with nothing happening to your dog (after all, when he hides, he makes it through the storm with no harm), this behavior puts roots, and soon you have a pretty reliable behavioral problem. Suddenly, you have a dog scared of thunder—actually, not only is he scared of thunder, he has learned to even start getting frightened at the very first signs of a storm coming. Yes, dogs are very good in sensing drops in barometric pressure, vibrations, and subtle changes in the static electric field preceding a storm, according to Alex Liebar. And because dogs live through associations, they soon learn to pair these changes with the upcoming storm.

So what happened? If the dog didn't care much about the thunder initially, but got scared at a later time due to the stimuli being more intense, most likely the dog became sensitized to it. Sensitization is the opposite of de-sensitization.

While a dog can become sensitized to stimuli, it is also true that a dog can become desensitized to stimuli, so the process is reversed. In other words, a stimulus that becomes more intense, more frightening, and more intimidating is more likely to lead to sensitization, whereas a stimulus that becomes less intense, less frightening, and less intimidating is more likely to lead to desensitization and habituation.

For this reason, should you decide to desensitize your dog to a stimulus, you must make sure you have a pretty good program with good sub-threshold exposure, 'cause sloppy desensitization will lead to sensitization. Sloppy in this case means sudden exposure to intense stimuli rather than gradual, subtle stimuli. Basically, you are "flooding the dog."

What If There Is No Threshold Level?

In some unusual circumstances, you may notice that you cannot find a way to work your dog under threshold, either because your dog's reactivity levels are too high or because the environment you are working at allows little to no distance from the trigger. What to do in such cases?

In such a case, you have some options:

  • Walk the dog for an hour prior to the desensitization session. When tired, some dogs are less likely to be reactive.
  • Find a calming aid to take the "edge off" so your dog will be less aroused. In some cases, Thundershirt, an Anxiety Wrap or Storm Defender may be helpful.
  • For severe cases, ask your veterinarian for advice. Your dog may need drugs and a behavior modification program with a behavior professional.
  • Find the highest value treats and try to use counter-conditioning. While it's ideal that counterconditioning is combined with desensitization, using counterconditioning alone with the aid of some calming aids may be productive.

So How Would You Desensitize a Dog?

Curious to see a step-by-step process on how to desensitize a dog? Let's take a peak. For instance, let's say your dog is reactive towards door-knocking. We saw a little part of this previously, but now let's go more in depth. Here is a gradual step-by-step guide:

  1. Start knocking on a table far away from the door very lightly. If your dog barks, you need to knock more lightly, almost imperceptibly.
  2. If your dog does not react, then you can proceed and make the knocking louder. If your dog barks, you need to knock more lightly.
  3. Start knocking in areas closer to the door, at increasingly louder levels than before. As always, if your dog reacts, you are going too fast for his comfort, so start at a lower level of intensity.
  4. Then start knocking the door from inside. Start lightly, and then gradually knock louder.
  5. Knock from behind the door; start lightly and then gradually knock louder.

Because all these knocks were not accompanied by a guest entering the home, they are gradually becoming less relevant and more meaningless. In order for desensitization to have an effect in this case, the number of knocks with no guests coming over, has to outnumber the number of knocks resulting with a guest.

As much as desensitization may appear like an effective way to get a dog to become less reactive, it may not deliver the promising results as wanted. Pamela Reid in the book Excel-erated Learning explains how a dog may appear to be desensitized to repeated doorbell ringing, but then should the doorbell ring after a break of 20 minutes, the frantic barking starts all over. This is why I avoid using desensitization alone and prefer to power it up with classical counter-conditioning.

An Example of Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli

Rudy on April 05, 2020:

Dog reacts to grooming his fronf paws

Jung on July 12, 2019:

Hi Adrienne,

I appreciate your article!

I have a new puppy in a building with an elevator, it seems hit or miss if the puppy is fine waltzing in or is trying to back away or hesitant to come in - I offer a treat every time the puppy comes into the elevator (willingly or with a little tug of the leash), but would of course prefer to just call the puppy in. Sometimes my pup will take the treat happily and sometimes will look at the door as it closes and not be interested in the treat. Once we are moving he usually relaxes.

Would carrying my puppy into the elevator be a good desensitization tool in this case? And/or with crowds?

Interested to hear your thoughts.

Thank you!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 12, 2012:

Thanks you, I am happy you found my article on dog desensitization helpful, kind regards!

sangeeta verma from Ludhiana India on October 11, 2012:

Voted up. Your hub is a through guide for a pet owner.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 11, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by Eiddwen!

Eiddwen from Wales on October 11, 2012:

Interesting and very very useful.

Eddy.

Funom Theophilus Makama from Europe on October 10, 2012:

A hub of great quality, fantastic and very engaging. It is a complete page which I greatly enjoyed and appreciate. Thanks for the awesome share and definitely voted up

GiblinGirl from New Jersey on October 10, 2012:

Another interesting technique I'll have to try out with my dog.


Ideally, the program should be designed and carried out in such small steps that the problem behavior never occurs during the program. This means that all the stimuli that cause the behavior should be identified and that you should find a way to lower their intensity until your pet doesn’t react to them. For example, if a cat becomes afraid if someone approaches closer than six feet, then the starting point would need to be much further away than six feet.

For example, if a cat is afraid of being picked up, you would want to figure out exactly what she's scared of. Is she more afraid of adults than children? More afraid of men than women? More afraid of a family member or someone she doesn’t know?

Some common factors to consider include location, loudness, distance, speed of movement, 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.

A counter conditioning and desensitization program needs to begin by using combinations of stimuli that are least likely to cause a fearful reaction. In our cat example above, perhaps the cat is least afraid of being handled by a familiar adult female who approaches slowly and speaks softly to her, while she’s lying on the bed in the bedroom. She is most afraid of a nephew who runs up to her yelling while she’s in the kitchen.

Begin with the easiest combination of characteristics of the situation, and gradually work up to the most difficult. If a cat will be less afraid of a male child approaching slowly than an adult female approaching fast, then we know speed of approach is more critical than type of person. Don’t make all dimensions more intense at the same time.

If a dog is afraid of the sound of the hair dryer, the sound must be presented to the dog at a low intensity that doesn't provoke the fearful behavior. This could be done by turning the dryer on and off quickly before the dog shows fear, turning the hair dryer on in another room, covering the dryer with towels, etc.

Help your pet associate good things with the situation rather than bad things. Good choices are food (especially favorite treats), toys, and social reinforcements like petting, attention, and praise. If food is used it should be in very small pieces and be highly desired by your pet (cheese, hot dogs or canned tuna often work well). You may need to experiment a little to see what food is the best motivator for your pet.

People commonly want to know how long they need to repeat each intensity level. This will depend entirely on your pet, who should be demonstrating that he is indeed expecting good things to happen. Perhaps he looks to you for a treat, or looks around for his toy. This should be in contrast to his previous reactions such as trembling, tensing up or other fearful or aggressive responses.

Counter conditioning and desensitization take time and should be done very gradually. Think through the steps you need to take. Rather than expecting progress in leaps and bounds, look for small, incremental change. It can be very helpful to keep a record of your results, since day to day changes will not be very big.

You may need to supplement the behavior modification program with other approaches, such as avoiding situations that provoke the problem, using a headcollar like the Gentle Leader collar or treating your pet with anti-anxiety medication. Your veterinarian or an animal behaviorist can give you more information on these options.


Behavior Adjustment Training (B.A.T.)

Behavior Adjustment Training (B.A.T.) is considered to be a fairly new behavior therapy approach developed by Grisha Stewart, MA, CPDT-KA who started publicly practicing this type of approach to dog behavior problems back in 2009. Although it has a short history, this therapy technique has already spread throughout the world and many dog owners and their dogs have benefited from it.

What is BAT

Just like desensitizing and counter conditioning, behavior adjustment training (B.A.T.) has its roots in the methods that we use in other fields, such as:

  • systematic desensitization
  • Functional communication training
  • Constructional Aggression Treatment

In addition to these, the concept of behavior adjustment training (B.A.T.) also relies on the use of rewarding training principles such as:

  • clicker (marker) training
  • negative reinforcement (I will explain this later on the page)
  • multiple rewarding system (not primarily based on the use of treats like desensitizing and counter conditioning )
  • understanding the effects and the importance of environmental factors in a dog’s life
  • understanding a dog’s signals and body language.

Similar to the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process, behavior adjustment training (B.A.T.) is based on repetitions and created scenarios in order for your dog to go through them.

The base is to work at a distance from the trigger where your dog displays a mild reaction to the stimulus, and then you wait for your dog to offer an alternative behavior other than the usual fear/aggressive response, something like looking around, smelling the ground, etc. at that moment you would “mark” that new behavior (clicker training principle) and reward your dog.

As mentioned above, there are a few reward options used in the behavior adjustment training (B.A.T.) approach and one of the most commonly used is the functional reward.

Functional rewards

Functional rewards are the type of rewards that we give to our dog (or that the dog gets as a result of a certain action), that are directly related to a certain situation, scenario or environment. For example

  • An aggressive behavior towards people results in people moving away, this is a relief (or a functional reward, if you prefer)
  • A dog is pulling you on a leash (the reward in this case is moving in the direction that he wants)
  • Most of the attention seeking behaviors exist because you do something that your dog “requires” at that moment which serves as a functional reward

So where to start?

The scenario is simple, locate the triggers and locate what the functional reward is for that particular dog behavior. For example, in most dog aggressive related behaviors the functional reward would be in creating an impact on the environment in a way that the stimulus (whatever the dog displays the aggression towards) moves, or leaves. That is the purpose of the dog’s aggressive approach in the first place. Seeing the trigger leaving is the functional reward that comes after the aggressive behavior.

This is also one of the reasons why it is difficult to deal with some behaviors like aggression because they are “highly rewarding” for the dog he quickly learns that by displaying this type of behavior he can control the environment in the way he wants.

Now once you know the triggers, you can figure out what is the functional reward that the dog is seeking in that particular situation. For example, an aggressive dog is looking for the removal of the trigger (another dog or person).

There is a simple formula that you can follow and it goes like this:

  • Environmental cue (the trigger in the environment to which the dog reacts for example, another dog)
  • Behavior (the response that the dog offers in that situation, in our example, an aggressive response)
  • Functional reward ( trigger leaves or you end up removing your dog from the situation which is either way rewarding for the dog)

The scenario you would use instead, in the future would be:

  • Expose the trigger at a distance where the dog doesn’t react (low arousal level)
  • Wait for your dog to look at the trigger (stimulus) and to offer an alternative behaviour, like looking on the side or sniffing, etc.
  • At that moment mark that behaviour then turn around and leave (functional reward). You can also offer additional treats to your dog after that, as well (second reward)

To better understand why this process works I will need to explain the formula of the process which is:

Negative reinforcement в†’ Positive reinforcement в†’ Positive reinforcement

This approach became familiar to me quite some time ago, during a seminar with Bart Bellon, a world famous dog trainer who described a training method that he refers to as “NE-PO-PO” (short for negative-positive-positive reinforcement).

As mentioned on the corrections in dog training page, negative reinforcement is not necessarily bad or evil. It is a part of the operant conditioning quadrants and all animals have some exposure to it more or less on a daily base.

In this case, the stress and pressure that the dog is exposed to when facing another dog at a low arousal level (this is the negative reinforcement), the dog learns to shut off by offering some behavior like explained above and based on that he earns the freedom to leave the situation (the first positive reinforcement) and then we offer a treat (the second positive reinforcement).

Your dog will learn that by offering new alternative behaviors like looking away, sniffing, etc. he can shut off the pressure, and control the environment in the same way that he use to do with aggression.

This is a relatively fast behavior rehabilitation process simply because it is based upon the foundations of nature itself dogs quickly learn how to get rid of the unwanted scenario in order to access the reward. Your job is just to control all the aspects of the exercise.

Using Behavior Adjustment Training (B.A.T.)

Now that you know how behavior adjustment training (B.A.T.) works, you can apply it in the real world. However, this is easier said than done. Depending on your dog’s issue and the environment where you live, you may find it easier or more difficult to organize the dog behavior adjustment training (B.A.T.) scenarios.

Also remember that it is best to seek the help of a professional dog trainer when embarking on a new training or therapy approach with your dog.

Although the scenarios for this type of training may be easier to set up then in the classic desensitizing and counter conditioning scenario, you will still run into situations where the “trigger” will pop up closer than you expected and that your dog will react in the way that you don’t want him to.

If this happen just take a few steps back (remember that leaving the scene is the functional reward for your dog so you just want to back away, as many steps as necessary, to gain control over your dog) turn your dog toward the trigger, wait for the moment your dog offers an alternative behavior, mark it and then leave the scene (give your dog the functional reward).

As time progresses, you may stop using the secondary reward (food treat, etc) and focus just on the functional reward.

One of the differences in the scenarios between desensitizing and counter conditioning and behavior adjustment training (B.A.T.) is the slightly different blueprint of the scenario. For example, in the B.A.T. therapy, you are approaching the trigger, or the trigger approaches you, and the end of the exercise is leaving the stressful situation which doesn’t have to be the case with the behavior adjustment training therapy approach.

Things to keep in mind

Just like any other exercise, the success of the behavior adjustment training (B.A.T.) process will mostly depend on you, as your job is to manage the environment, read your dog’s signals, understand what is going on at every moment of the process, and you need to have good timing in order to communicate with your dog.

Once you are focused on the technical part of the exercise which some find quite challenging in itself ( organizing scenarios, reading dog’s signals, making sure to mark at the correct time, etc.), many people tend to forget about their own language and about secondary things that happen in those types of situations, like tightening the leash, holding your breath, etc.

Always keep in mind that your dog will react to your energy and your body language, so keep yourself relaxed and calm. You don’t want to be the reason for your dog’s failure.

TIP: Remember that you (dog owner/handler) are the one who controls and influences the situation, your dog simply reacts to it.

Again, I would like to recommend the materials and articles from Turid Rugaas (Norway) she is a world renowned dog trainer and her programs will help you understand your dog’s body language, especially the calming signals. I think that every dog owner should invest time in learning a dog’s body language this is a great help and beneficial knowledge that will help you in numerous situations throughout your life.


Desensitizing and Counter-conditioning (CC&D)

Desensitizing and counter-conditioning (CC&D) is a wide spread behavior modification technique whose ultimate goal is to change the emotional response (which leads to an overall change in the dog’s approach to the subject) towards a given “trigger” that caused the dog to react in the first place.

On this page you will find the details that you need in order to successfully create a rehabilitation plan. You will also find information about dog calming signals, at the bottom of the page, which are useful techniques to develop a language of signals that may help your dog stay calmer in certain situations.

Desensitizing and counter-conditioning is actually a combination of two different techniques that work well hand in hand, in order to produce the ultimate goal which is a different emotional response from our dog to a certain stimulus (or so called “trigger” in dog training circles). This is any situation, object, person, etc. that provokes a fearful reaction in a dog.

To start we can explain the desensitizing and counter-conditioning concepts

Systematic Desensitization

This type of behavior therapy was perfected by psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe and the goal was to change the fear and anxiety based responses to certain stimuli for his patients (humans). The same technique is used for dogs.

The goal of this behavior therapy is to expose the subject to a low level trigger which evokes the unwanted response in certain scenarios, and then to decrease the distance and the amount of stimulus gradually to where the subject can “control” the situation emotionally.

This is the opposite approach to the flooding in dog training technique which is based on exposing a subject to the highest level of stimulus, provoking in most cases, the highest level of response in order for a dog to “go through it” until he “realizes” that there is actually nothing dangerous in that particular situation.

Counter-conditioning

Counter-conditioning is basically a classical conditioning in which we are pairing something that was producing an unpleasant response with something pleasant instead. In most cases treats are used, this is for a few reasons

  • The presence of food (treats) and eating releases a certain chemical cocktail in a dog’s brain that naturally helps the dog relax
  • Since we use treats in various different exercises where there are no fear based situations, our dogs create a positive emotional response to the presence of treats which helps them, in this case, in “fighting” the fear/anxiety response
  • Food is the best indicator to read the dog’s level of stress, fear and anxiety. If you go too fast (which will probably happen) through the levels of desensitizing, and your dog is not ready, he will stop taking treats if the level of stimulus (trigger) is too high for him. In this case, take a step or two back in your training.

By pairing food with a trigger at a sub-threshold distance (a distance where a dog has little or mild to no response) we are getting the “looking forward to” instead of the fearful aggressive response. This process is also known as conditioned emotional response (CER) and the purpose is to change the complete emotional response towards something that was considered to be unpleasant to the dog before.

How long does desensitizing and counter-conditioning take?

This is, in most cases, a long term procedure that can vary anywhere from weeks to years. Exactly when you can consider yourself and your dog to be “done” with desensitizing and counter-conditioning therapy is difficult to say. It depends on the dog, the amount and strength of the stimulus, the handler, the environment, etc. and in some cases it is even a lifetime process.

It is important to mention that even if you never fully resolve the issue (although this is rarely the case) just lowering the dog’s response to a certain trigger will help him in managing his fear/anxiety levels.

Far too often, I meet with dog owners that believe that a certain behavior appeared “out of the blue”, only to later discover upon meeting the dog, that he is a fearful temperament type of dog. Just like any other behavior pattern in a dog’s life, fear and anxiety tends to grow and will “spill over” to parts of a dog’s life that never before exposed a fear. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to help your dog with these issues otherwise they will progressively get worse for him.

Where to start with desensitizing and counter-conditioning

Although every situation is unique, there are a few steps that we can use as a guide in getting started:

  • 1) Locate the stressors (triggers)
  • 2) Make a training plan
  • 3) Find a “safety distance”

These should be enough to start, and I will repeat again as with any other behavior modification (or therapy, if you prefer) it is always advisable to contact a professional for advice and help.

1) Locate the stressors

The first step in desensitizing and counter-conditioning is to locate the stressors (triggers) to which your dog reacts. These are unique for each dog and they may be related to certain environments, situations, objects, animals, humans, etc. Understanding what provokes the fear/anxiety responses in your dog is your starting point.

2) Make 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

  • a) Creating levels
  • b) Organizing environments
  • c) Creating situations

A) 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, mid-levels 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 based on the dog, the stressors, the environment, etc.

Once your dog is comfortable with one distance, try moving closer by about five metres or more (depending on the dog) and then try again from there, if your dog seems to overreact at this distance, move back to the previous successful distance and then progress to only half the distance, etc.

B) 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 in order to avoid 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.

Is it possible to avoid everything?

No, it probably isn’t. No matter how good your plans are and how good of an organized environment scheme you have made, you may still end up running into problems unexpectedly. For example, if you are dealing with your dog’s fearful aggressive response to other dogs, you may find yourself in a situation where you are passing near a parking lot and someone just took their dog out of the car right in front of you, or you are passing in front of a building and someone is just exiting the building and suddenly your dog is simply too close to that stimulus and his reaction is inevitable.

Once this happens there is nothing much that you can do, no yelling, treats, praising or whatever you do will help or change his response, it is too late. When that moment happens, your dog gets under the influence of adrenalin and other body chemicals and his brain sort of “locks”.

The best thing that you can do, at these times, is to physically remove your dog from the scene (walk away) until you reach your safety distance, at which you can once again communicate with your dog.

Once you have regained control over your dog, end the experience on a positive note, use treats while your dog is watching the other dog leaving or engage in a game of play, and then you can go back to the environment where it happened, do a few more treats and short playful interactions. Always end with a positive experience.

It is important to take the time to do these steps and not to just leave the “crime scene” as many people do by simply leaving and not turning back or doing anything else to address the unexpected situation. The reason for this important step is that you are running the possibility of actually training your dog that the bigger the reaction that he creates the faster that you will leave the potential unpleasant situation. Your dog may learn that this is the way to deal with and resolve these conflicts, and this unwanted behavior can become a bad or uncontrollable habit.

C) 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 as 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 which will require taking a step or a few steps back to the last previously successful level.

TIP: There is no room for rushing in the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process we can only follow our dog’s pace. The only time at which we can change the level and advance to the next, is when our dog is actually ready to do so. How many repetitions are needed at each level? That depends on many, many factors some of which we mentioned above but mostly all dependent on the individual dog.

It is not so easy to create situations and scenarios in which you can have control over a stimulus and your dog’s reaction to it. A dog expert can help you break down certain problematic situations in order for the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process to go as smoothly as possible.

3) Find a Safety Distance

Now that you have determined the triggers, made your training plan, divided into levels that you think may work best and you have an idea of how to create situations, it is now time to find a safety distance at which to begin working.

The safety distance is considered to be a distance where your dog shows mild to no response at all to the trigger. For example: if your dog reacts to another dog at a distance of 10 meters (32ft) you need to move back and try a 20 or 30 meters distance (65ft to 98ft). You need to work at the distance where your dog won’t show the signs of nervousness.

Once you have that distance that is your Safety distance at which you will start your desensitizing and counter-conditioning process.

The best way to describe how the whole process works is detailed in the picture above. In this case, the dog is reacting to humans. In the middle of the picture there is a dog, the blue ring is the safety distance area. The red line represents the direction that the person in the left corner is moving. There are two points where this red line crosses the blue ring. The entrance point and the exit point.

The gray area actually represents the level, the distance at which the trigger (in this case the person) penetrates the dog’s safe zone. As your dog becomes more comfortable, this gray area will expand.

This is what desensitizing and counter-conditioning are all about. You don’t have to remain in one spot, and one environment, as long as you stick to the same principles.

One criterion at a time

As with any other type of dog training, when working through the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process, you only raise and add one criterion at a time. It is pointless, for example, to try working on a dog’s fear of people in a place where the dog is already overwhelmed with stress from the unknown or uncomfortable environment.

Working on two or more criteria at the same time is impossible as it would be overwhelming for the dog and may slow down the process even more. The more things that you are trying to add at the same time, the slower and more demanding, if not impossible, the whole process will be.

The environment plays a huge role in desensitizing and counter-conditioning. For example, your dog may react to a human presence in a familiar place at a distance of 10 metres (32ft), but if you expose the same dog in an open area and a human figure where that person is the only “object” in that area, the dog may respond to the trigger at a much greater distance.

Desensitizing and counter-conditioning is in a way, a type of dog training technique, and the same rule applies for every type of dog training it is always best to start in a familiar environment and then move on from there.

Calming signals

Too often we forget that we are part of a team with our dog and we are an equally important link in our dog’s behaviors. Dogs react to our energy and body signals more than we are even consciously aware of. How many times does it happen that an experienced handler and a superbly trained dog fail on the day of competition, just because of a glitch in their communication?

Even though we all think that “down” means the down command, to our dog it is more in the way that the command is delivered than the word itself. Knowing this will help us through the desensitizing and counter-conditioning process when you are dealing with your dog’s behavior problems.

The fact is that no one likes or feels comfortable when their dog starts to act up. Most people either react overwhelmed, emitting a lower type of energy, sending the “oh no, here we go again” attitude, or they get excited, frustrated and almost angry in the hopes of controlling or containing the situation, but it becomes impossible to stay focused and controlled. No one is immune, but how we react in those moments is what counts, as that is the message that you are sending to your dog.

Staying calm is imperative at those times. You are the one who will help your dog in dealing with his behavior problems, no matter if you go down or up emotionally, the fact that you changed your behavior is a flag to your dog that something is wrong and that he should respond to the situation. Removing your energy from the equation will help him calm down sooner.

You can also train your dog to stay calm. Now these training techniques work for some dogs, and not for all, but even if you make the slightest progress, it can help you and your dog in the future. The secret here is to reinforce the calming behaviors when your dog is offering them throughout normal everyday situations.

It may be difficult for some, to use the clicker or marker training techniques when trying to capture calm behaviors, as this technique will often spark the dog’s excitement to work, which will defy the purpose of marking your dog’s calm state. To avoid this you can simply give him a treat unexpectedly when your dog is in this calm state and then move on, without marking it verbally.

Another option is pairing a certain verbal signal (verbal cue) with the relaxed state. For example, praising your dog in a slow, calm and relaxing manner while he lies calmly next to you. Later, you can use this verbal signal during situations to help your dog calm down.

Don’t expect magic to happen. The purpose of this is to send your dog contradictory signals to his reaction in a certain situation. Your dog will calm down faster if he can see that you are “practicing” calmness.

There are many other ways that you can try to understand dog calming signals and how to help your dog calm down. If you are interested in this subject I can recommend a couple of dog trainers and experts who have made huge advances in this field. They are Turid Rugaas (from Norway) and Emma Parsons you can find a lot of material both online and through published books, by these two experts, that may help you in creating a better communication with your dog.

Desensitizing and Counter-Conditioning: A Helpful Tool

Desensitizing and counter-conditioning is a process that every dog owner should become familiar with, as every dog has issues at some point in his life with something. This process is a great tool and is often the easiest way for your dog, in helping him overcome these issues.


Watch the video: Understanding Counter Conditioning to Help A Reactive Dog


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