Systematic Desensitization and Counterconditioning | Dog Behavior Modification

    dog with sensitive temperament

    Systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning is a behavior modification method with the main goal of changing the emotional response (completely changing the dog’s response to a subject) towards a stimulus that causing the dog to react differently.

    In this article, I will share important details on how you can create a therapy program for your dog. I will also add information about dog calming signals which can help you develop a system of language to help your dog stay relaxed if a certain trigger is encountered.

    Systematic desensitizing and counter-conditioning is a combination of two different methods that work efficiently together, as a way to produce the main objective which is to get a different behavior response from your dog to a particular trigger. This trigger can be any situation, object, human interaction, etc. that causes the dog to be fearful.

    What are desensitization and counter-conditioning methods

    Systematic Desensitization

    This behavior modification technique was developed by psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe to change the fear and anxiety-based impulse to a certain trigger for his human patients. This technique is used for dogs as well.

    This behavior therapy aims to introduce the subject to a low-level trigger which induces the unwanted response in particular situations, and then to lower the distance and the degree of stimulus slowly helping the subject to control the situation effectively.   

    This technique is the reverse of flooding therapy where the subject is well exposed to the stimulus, causing the highest level of response from the dog until it realizes it is not a danger to him.


    Counter-conditioning is a traditional way of behavior modification in which we pair something that produces an unfriendly response with something agreeable instead.  In this method we use treats for a few reasons:

    With the use of food (treats), it helps releases a certain brain chemical in dogs that naturally make the dog calm.

    Using treat in different exercises where there are no fear-producing situations, dogs will respond positively to the presence of treats which helps them clear their mind of fear and anxiety.

    Food can help show the level of stress, fear, and anxiety the dog experiences. If you make the desensitization therapy too fast, and your dog is still adjusting, he will stop taking treats because the pressure is too high for him. If this happens, you need to go back a step or two in your dog therapy plan.

    By partnering food with the stimulus at a lower-level distance (distance where the dog will react little, mild or make no reaction at all) we are creating the looking forward to rather than tense aggressive response, this process is also termed conditioned emotional response and the idea is to replace the complete emotional response to a situation that the dog considered risky to him. 

    Desensitizing and counter-conditioning program duration

    In most cases, it requires a longer period that can take anywhere from weeks to years.  There is no exact time-frame when you can consider the therapy is done. It always depends on the dog, the levels of triggers, the handler, and the environment, sometimes the rehabilitation is even a lifetime process.

    It is helpful to mention also that even it takes a long time and the issue is slightly resolved, by decreasing the dog’s response to a particular stimulus will help him succeed in working through his fears and anxieties.

    Many dog owners wondered why their dogs suddenly show a different behavior, only to later discover that their dog has a fearful temperament. Very much like other behavior patterns in dogs, fear and anxiety can grow and affect other parts of a dog’s life that never been affected before. This is why dog behavior training is important to help your dog deal with these issues; otherwise, these problems will gradually turn worse for him.

    The right time to start desensitization and counter-conditioning your dog

    Every situation requires a unique solution, you can apply a few steps to get you started:
    • Identify your dog's stressor
    • Make the appropriate training plan
    • Find a safe distance
    These can help you start your training but as I always advise seeking the help of a professional if you’re having difficulty devising a therapy plan for your dog.

    1.) Identify your dog stressors – the first action you should take is to find the stressors to which your dog reacts. Every dog has its unique stressors and they are linked to a certain environment, situations, different animals, people, etc. understanding what causes your dog to have fear and anxieties is where you should start.

    2.) Devising your plan – this is a very important key to the success of your training. The better your plan is, the fewer issues will come up during the therapy process. To make your plan it involves:

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

    a) Creating levelsYour plan should be divided into levels. Depending on what issue, like dog’s frequent barking, chewing, etc.  these factors can help you determine the number of levels and if the case required, mid-levels or other light improvements to be able to help your dog complete each level. The thing you need to focus on is the distance. There are no exact guidelines concerning this, it is based more on the dog’s situation, his stressors, the place where he lives, etc.

    Once you familiarize your dog with a comfortable distance, try to adjust closer by about 5-6 meters or more, then repeat from there, if your dog reacts excessively while at this distance, go back to the previous distance where he is comfortable and follow this by moving only half the distance.

    b) Establishing the environment – in this process be sure to organize and commit to daily routines and environments. This way you can avoid getting into situations where your dog will be subjected to activating triggers which can lead to his fear and anxiety responses.  The right time to have your dog exposed to this type of scenarios is when you have set up a controlled rehabilitation setting so you can have total control of the situation.

    Remember that your focus is on changing your dog’s emotional response to a type of situation and forcing your dog to undergo those same scenarios in which he gets out of control will not help you solve the issue.

    Can you avoid everything?

    It is not possible. Regardless of the time and effort, you devoted to the plan there are still problems that can come up unexpectedly. For example, if your dog has an aggressive response to other dogs nearby, you may be in a situation where you will pass a house where there are dogs or someone has just exited a building and your dog is too close to an unfamiliar person and his reaction is expected.

    If a situation like this happens to you and your dog there is nothing you can do about it, even if you yell, give your dog a treat, or praising him or other things you do just to stop his reaction, it is too late. You see whenever a dog is triggered by this type of situation, your dog is under the influence of adrenalin and other emotion-triggering chemicals in his body and brain. He is now sort of locked to this trigger.

    The best solution to this issue is to get away and physically remove your dog from the place until you are at a safe distance, then start to communicate with your dog. 

    Once your dog becomes calm, make sure that you end the experience positively, try to give him some treats while he is seeing other dogs leaving or play with him for a while, then go back to the place where it happened. While passing, give him more treats and playfully interact with him. Be sure you end with a favorable experience.

    To be successful in your training give focus to do these steps and prioritize the environment that caused the issue. Don’t turn your back on the crime scene as most people do. Keep in mind that your dog’s problem will always come up every time there’s an unexpected situation. Always train your dog with the possibility in your mind that he will create a good reaction, eventually helping you to solve the potential problem easily. Your dog can learn how to manage and solve the conflicts he is in. Don’t let this undesirable behavior to become an uncontrollable habit of your dog.

    c) Creating the conditionsFor desensitization and counter-conditioning method to work, your dog needs to perform a series of successful repetitions. This will be a difficult task for you because you will provide him a situation wherein your dog is exposed to a trigger from a certain distance for several repetitions before you can move to the next rehabilitation plan.

    You need to devote some time for this and it will require you the help of other people, other animals, etc. Make sure that you organize things properly and apply some patience while moving on to the next levels, and don’t tend to hurry the training. If you rush the process, you will face some difficulties that might require you to take a step back to your previous successful level.

    To be successful in your dog rehabilitation plan is your main goal, that’s why you don’t need to rush your desensitizing and counter-conditioning process; follow only what your dog can do. The right time to move to the next level is when your dog has gained confidence and ready to advance to the next training. How many repetitions you can do for each level? It all depends on the factors I mentioned above. It will all depend on the issues your dog is confronting.

    3.) Start at a safe distance - Since you have identified the triggers, crafted a training plan, divided it into levels you think that may produce the best results and the idea of how you can make a situation, you can now find a safe distance to start applying your plan.

    Remember that the safety distance is where your dog is not creating a response or shows a mild response to a trigger. As an example, if your dog barks at another dog at a distance of 10 meters, try to move back move 20 to 30 meters away. You need to operate at a distance where your dog will not fearful or nervous.  Once you are in that range, you can now mark that as your Safety Distance where you can start to train your dog to be less-sensitive and counter condition him.

    To explain the process, take a look at the picture above. In this scenario, the dog is triggered by humans. In the middle you can see the dog, the blue ring the encircles the dog is his safety distance area. the red line on top is where the direction the person is moving. A designated two points where the red line crosses the blue line. The first point is the entry point and the second point are the exit point.

    The area colored in gray represents the level, the distance where the trigger breaches the dog’s safe distance. As your dog becomes more familiarized and comfortable, the gray area will get bigger.

    This is all the main objective of desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques. Remember not to keep in the same spot or in that single environment, just adhere to the same rules.

    Do one criterion at a time

    With regard to other dog training methods, when you are going through the process of desensitization and counter-conditioning, adopt only one standard at a time. It is unnecessary, for instance, to try dealing with a dog’s fear of people in a place in which the dog is actually plagued with pressure from the unfamiliar or unpleasant environment.

    Executing a couple of conditions simultaneously is not possible because it would be too much to handle for the dog and may weaken the process even more. The more issues that you are trying to add simultaneously, the slower and more difficult, if not impossible, the entire process will be.

    Your dog's environment has a tremendous part in desensitizing and counter-conditioning. take, for instance, even your dog is in a familiar place, he may react to a human presence at a distance of 10 meters. but if you introduce that dog in an open area and he sees only a single human figure, your dog will surely react to the trigger at a greater distance.

    These dog behavior modification techniques should follow the same rules: always begin your training in an environment where your dog is familiar and then progress to the next level.

    calming your dog

    Calming signals

    Most times we fail to realize that we owners are part of a team with our dog and being part of that it creates an important connection in our dog's behaviors. We are not even consciously aware that our energy and body language can make our dogs behave in a particular way. You see even the experienced dog trainer and a well-trained dog can fall short in the competition due to a problem in their communication.

    Though our dog knows that the "down" command means to sit down, to them it is more in the way how we deliver that command than the word itself. This idea can help make your dog less sensitive and behave well in the counter-conditioning process.

    It is really an uncomfortable feeling when our dog starts to act up.  most people reactions to these types of situations is to react confused, releasing a lower type of energy that our dog picks up as " I need to do this again" attitude, or they start to get upset, disappointed and starting to lose control of the situation, though we tried it becomes impossible for us to stay in focus and control the issue.

    To stay calm is an important element when such a situation occurred. You are the one who can help your dog defeat his behavior problems, it doesn’t matter if you get frustrated or not if you show your dog something has changed in you emotionally to them there is something wrong triggering him to respond to the situation. You should switch off the energy emitting from you to make your dog calm down quickly.

    It will help you to train your dog to stay calm. these training methods can be helpful for some dogs and may not be effective for all, but if you try and make your dog improve even the slightest, it can certainly help you and your dog in the long run. this approach works by strengthening the calming behaviors every time your dog is offering them, especially during normal everyday situations.

    Though it can be difficult, using the clicker or marker training techniques to capture your dog's calm behaviors, because this technique can motivate your dog to work, which oppose the objective of marking your dog's calm mood. You can avoid this by suddenly giving your dog a treat every time your dog is relaxed then move on, without making any verbal signals.

    You can also pair your verbal signal while your dog is in a relaxed mood. For example, complimenting your dog in a quiet, gentle and relaxing manner while he lies next to you.  You can use this technique during unexpected situations to help your dog settle down.

    Don’t expect to get faster results. the goal for this is to send opposite signals to your dog while he is reacting to a certain situation. You will notice that your dog will calm down faster if he can see you are showing the right composure.

    Desensitizing and Counter-Conditioning: A Valuable Approach

    It is important for dog’s owners to have knowledge of desensitization and counter-conditioning process as every dog encounters different problems in the course of his life with something. This approach is an effective tool and is often the best method for your dog in helping him rise above these issues.

    Watch dog behavior modification training


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