COUNTER-CONDITIONING AND DESENSITIZATION
(Changing your Dog’s Emotional State and Behaviors Around Triggers that May Cause Fear, Anxiety, Aggression, Reactivity, and or Phobias)
Counter-conditioning Sponsored by CALM DOGS “The World’s Best Dog Anxiety Calming Aid or It’s FREE.”
Counter-Conditioning By Will Bangura, Dog Behaviorist, M.S., CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
“Dogs exhibiting inappropriate, out-of-context fears or aggression are not misbehaved or poorly behaved-they are clinically abnormal and must be regarded as such.
Q: What are *Counter-Conditioning and *Desensitization?
A: The term counter-conditioning means teaching a dog to display behaviors that are different and or opposite of your dog’s current behavior and response to a trigger. Desensitization is the process of exposing your dog to triggers starting at very low intensity. Both counter-conditioning and desensitization are used together to change the behavior and emotional state of dogs, especially with fearful and aggressive behaviors and underlying emotional states.
Q: Exactly How Do You Set Up and Implement counter conditioning and desensitization plan?
A: There are many steps involved in a Counter-Conditioning and Desensitization Plan.
- Identify your dog’s triggers that elicit your dog’s fearful or aggressive behavior.
- Create a list of these triggers and put them in the order of least intense reactions or behaviors to the triggers to most intense reactions or behaviors.
- Arrange your dog’s life and routine to avoid all triggers, (initially,) except when doing the structured work of counter-conditioning and desensitization.
- For every trigger and every trigger characteristic, score your dog’s behavior or reaction to the triggers on a scale of 1 to 10, with ten being the worst reaction and one being the best reaction. Give scores in three categories; (1) Frequency of reaction to the trigger, (2) Intensity of reaction or behavior and (3) Duration of reaction or behavior, (How long does it take your dog to go back to normal.)
- Study and know your dog’s canine body language such as Stress Signals, Calming Signals, Distance Increasing Signals, Submissive Gestures, and Acts of Deference as a way to gauge your dog’s internal emotional state when exposed to a trigger.
- Start with the triggers that are least likely to bring about an unwanted behavior or reaction from your dog. Work your way up the list of triggers from least intense reactions and behaviors to most intense reactions and behaviors.
- Develop a plan on how to make each trigger less intense for the dog.
- Associate each trigger and each characteristic of a trigger with a positive reinforcer, (ideally the highest value food item your dog loves.)
- Go slow. Only proceed as fast as the dog’s pace and ability to work through the triggers. (Working too slow, gradually and systematic, is better than too fast, *flooding.)
- Never allow your dog to be put in a situation where your dog is over the “threshold.” You need to always keep your dog below the “threshold.”
Counter-Conditioning Working at the Dog’s Pace
- Don’t move forward in the process until your dog anticipates the reward when the trigger is present and maintains a calm, relaxed demeanor and body language consistently for a few weeks.
- Counter condition and desensitization sessions need to occur at a minimum 3 to 5 times a week.
- Keep counter-conditioning and desensitization sessions short and frequent, 5 to 15 minutes long, 3 to 5 times a week or more.
- Keep a behavior modification journal and notes for each counter-conditioning and desensitization session. Include what the trigger is, what characteristic of the trigger worked on, and note what intensity level the trigger was being worked on a scale of one to ten again, only this time you are scoring what level of intensity you are exposing the dog to the trigger. Include your dog’s progress or lack of progress. Include canine body language cues your dog displays.
- Take a video of the counter-conditioning and desensitization session for feedback from your trainer or behaviorist as well as your own self-evaluation.
- Dogs that make little to no progress or very slow progress (Longer than 2 months to desensitize one trigger,) often indicate that there is also a potential neurochemical imbalance and the need for non-sedating behavior medicine in addition to behavior modification. Behavior medicine also increases the ability of your dog to learn and remember as well as balances out your dog’s neurochemicals/neurotransmitters, decreasing your dog’s unwanted behaviors and emotional state.
Counter-conditioning and desensitization are often times done before obedience training for dogs that are so reactive that a trainer can not approach them close enough to teach and work with the dog on obedience.
For dogs that can be approached and can be close enough to the trainer without reacting, obedience training may occur before counter conditioning and desensitization. Once there are some obedience command behaviors taught, we can decrease the intensity of the trigger by working the dog in obedience commands while being exposed to the trigger and while doing the counter conditioning and desensitization.
For some dogs that already have some reliably taught obedience commands, obedience training and counter-conditioning and desensitization may start concurrently.
*Counter-conditioning is the pairing of one stimulus that evokes one response with another that evokes an opposite response so that the first stimulus comes to evoke the second response. For example, a dog is afraid of men wearing hats. When a man wearing a hat approach, the dog is repeatedly fed his favorite food. The goal is to replace the animal’s apprehension with the pleasure elicited by the food. Counter-conditioning must be done gradually, however; if the process is rushed, the favorite food may take on the fear association instead.
*Desensitization is the process of increasing an animal’s tolerance to a particular stimulus by gradually increasing the presence of the stimulus.
*Flooding in Psychological terms is the process of exposing an animal to a trigger at maximum intensity right from the start. (This approach is counterproductive and will make the problem worse. It is important to know if you are flooding your dog and to avoid this during day-to-day activities and during a training session of counter-conditioning and desensitization.)