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Counter Conditioning and Desensitization

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Desensitization and counter conditioning

Desensitization and Counter Conditioning

Desensitization and counter conditioning are two phrases you may hear me say several times throughout a behaviour modification plan.  This is a popular behaviour modification technique which aims to change the dogs emotional response to a feared trigger.  Creating a relaxed and happy dog when in the presence of something that was previously scary.

Before you can create a training plan to desensitize your dog and counter-condition his response, we first need to know the theory behind the words.


Desensitisation is the ability to ignore the stimulus so that it  becomes part of the background.  In human terms, this is rather like living next to a railway line or busy road.  After a while, the noise is barely noticeable, not because its quiet, but because it’s part of the background and you have become desensitised to it.

Desensitisation introduces very low levels of the scary stimulus so that the dog is aware of it, however he is still able to focus on training.  From there, we can increase the exposure until the dog can confront the stimulus without any fear.


Counter-conditioning is very similar to classical conditioning (See Learning Theory).  Only we are pairing something pleasant with something that is/was unpleasant.  For example, we can use counter-conditioning to make firework noises more tolerable, or the entrance of people into your home means that your dog gets a tasty treat.  We can even use it to conquer spider fears in humans!

By pairing fun play, or tasty treats with low levels of fireworks noise, we can teach the dog that there is nothing to fear, or even that fireworks mean that he gets the yummiest treats of all (Maybe a nice Sunday lunch stuffed Kong.  See Recipes here)

How Long Does It Take?

It depends.  This is usually a long term training plan that can take anything from weeks, to months or years.  It also depends on how long the dog has been fearful of the stimulus, and how committed you are to changing his behaviour.

How to make a plan

  1. Identify the triggers, (the thing that makes your dog scared). This can be the hardest part and it’s not always obvious. A dog who is scared of going to the vets may actually just be scared of being handled, it may be the strong smell of disinfectant, or it could be fear of being left alone if he has been before.
  2. Make a training plan. Once you know exactly what your dog is scared of you can break it down into small steps.  This means creating levels of training, and organizing situations and encounters.

Every environment needs to be carefully managed.  An unexpected dog appearing from around the corner for a dog-aggressive dog could be a major setback in training.  Starting fireworks training too late in the year could mean your dog has to deal with loud noises beyond what he has trained for previously.

  1. Find your dogs starting point. The starting point needs to begin just before your dog becomes uneasy in the presence of the trigger.  This might be 20 metres away from any dog or person,  barely audible fireworks noise or several metres away from the veterinary surgery’s entrance.  Don’t be disheartened even if it has to be 100 metres from anything, it’s still possible to ease your dogs fear.
  2. Move at your dog’s pace. Watch out for signs of fear and nervousness.  If he is not coping at the current level then take a step back.  There’s going to be good days and bad days.  Sometimes it will be one step forward and two back.  This is all part of the process.  Just keep going!

With time, patience and commitment desensitization and counter conditioning can change your dogs emotional reaction towards triggers, whatever they may be!