Desensitisation and Counterconditioning

Desensitisation and Counter-conditioning are behavioural training techniques which can be very valuable in helping dogs to deal with situations they find stressful, such as loud noises or worrying objects.

Desensitisation

The goal of desensitisation is to eliminate or reduce the exaggerated, emotional reaction that a dog has to a specific thing or noise. Systematic desensitisation is a plan involving a gradual process of exposing a dog to a less intense version of the thing or event he fears, so that the fear is not triggered.

Desensitisation starts with exposing a dog to a weak, less threatening version of the thing he fears or dislikes. The thing or event is made less intimidating until the dog no longer reacts. Over time, as the animal habituates at that low exposure, the stimulus is gradually increased in intensity again until the intensity is equal to that which caused the initial negative reaction. The final goal is to have a dog which will calmly accept a stimulus which previously he feared.

Counter conditioning

To “condition” means to teach, and to “counter” means to change. So counter conditioning just means to re-teach your dog to have a pleasant feeling and reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked. This is done by associating the feared thing with something good so that it predicts good things for the animal. As soon as the dog sees or hears the stimulus, one gives him a tasty treat or even a meal to create a positive emotional reaction. After many repetitions he learns that whenever that thing appears, good things happen. Eventually the stimulus will produce a neutral or even positive emotional reaction to the previously feared event.

Systematic Desensitisation and Counter-conditioning

Desensitisation is often combined with counter-conditioning because it’s almost impossible to teach a positive association to something if the dog is actively experiencing fear or showing aggression. So the animal is exposed to a weak version of the feared or disliked thing (desensitisation), and given tasty treats (counter-conditioning). Over many exposures, the stimulus is gradually made stronger and always followed immediately with treats.

For example:

-With fear of loud noises, make a recording of the feared noise lasting about 5 minutes.

-Play this recording to the dog at a very low volume, low enough that it is hardly audible and to which he doesn’t react.

-Do this every time you feed him.

-Slowly increase the volume of the recording, very slightly. If the dog reacts at all, turn it down again.

-Try turning up the recording again a few days later.

-In this way you can slowly habituate your dog to louder and louder noises, always associating them with the positive stimulus of good food.

-Take your time with this exercise. It can takes several weeks to work and the most common reason owners fail is that they try to advance too quickly. Be led by your dog and you will find that he will steadily become accustomed to the noise or whatever else concerns him.