Guide to Dog Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning | Pupford
February 10th, 2023
Filed under Training
One of the most common dog behavior challenges we see pup parents face is their dog getting over-excited or scared over something, causing their behavior to change.
For some, it’s a matter of helping your dog gain confidence around new people and in new places, so they can overcome their fear.
But for others, it’s a matter of safety. Overstimulated, overexcited, or scared dogs can behave erratically – sometimes even dangerously.
Regardless of which bucket your dog falls into (or any of the spaces in between!) this guide to desensitization and counterconditioning will give you the tools you need to manage your dog’s emotional response toward new stimuli.
Topics we’ll cover:
- Background information on excitement, fear, and arousal in dogs
- What is counterconditioning?
- What is desensitization?
- How to utilize dog desensitization training
- Tips, tricks, and mistakes to avoid
BACKGROUND INFO: EXCITEMENT, FEAR, AND AROUSAL IN DOGS
Think of your dog’s emotional response as a gauge.
On one end of the spectrum is scared, where your dog has a strong negative reaction to something or someone. On the other end is excitement, where although the reaction is generally charged by positive emotion, it pulls your dog out of their calm, comfortable state nonetheless.
Of course, your dog’s reaction can fall somewhere in between as well. But generally speaking, we want all encounters to hover around that neutral zone – where your dog may notice the new stimuli, but not react one way or the other.
Reactions that fall too far towards the scared or excited ends of the spectrum will make them uncomfortable and can affect behavior.
WHAT IS COUNTER-CONDITIONING?
There are two approaches to managing your dog’s emotional response, the first being counter conditioning.
With counter conditioning, the goal is to change your dog’s response to a stimulus.
Let’s take a look at this with a common example: excessive barking and lunging at the door when a package is delivered.
In this instance, the delivery person approaching your house elicits a reaction in the “scared” zone of the gauge we talked about earlier. You can use counter conditioning to rewire your dog’s response – using positive reinforcement to form a new association between an approaching delivery person and a calm, neutral reaction. More details on this in just a little!
WHAT IS DOG DESENSITIZATION?
Desensitization training is a different approach to changing your dog’s reaction to stimuli. This approach uses gradual exposure to the things that cause your dog to react.
Let’s say your dog gets over-excited by other dogs. With desensitization training, you would expose your dog to other dogs starting with far distances and gradually decreasing the distance until they can interact without overexcitement. Again, we’ll dive a little deeper on this in a later section.
HOW TO UTILIZE DOG DESENSITIZATION TRAINING
Counterconditioning and desensitization are typically used in combination since they complement each other with the same goal.
Here’s how to utilize these approaches in your training:
1. ENGAGE-DISENGAGE GAME
This game is all about finding your dog’s trigger threshold. For example, how close another dog needs to be to them before they have a reaction.
The key here is to start much farther away from your dog’s trigger than you think you need to be. Their true trigger threshold may be different than what you think – plus being farther away will likely give your dog more opportunities for success.
Once you have the trigger in sight, reward your dog for every time they look at their trigger but remain calm and don’t have a reaction. You’ll need plenty of for this, since it will take a lot of practice.
After many successful repetitions, you can move a little bit closer to the trigger and repeat. And repeat, and repeat some more!
Eventually, the goal is to be close enough to interact with the trigger, but not react to it.
Note – never approach another animal with your dog if there’s a chance they will react strongly UNLESS you know the other animal and are doing so in a controlled environment.
2. TEACHING ALTERNATIVE RESPONSES
Another training to incorporate is teaching an alternate response – changing their feelings towards a given stimulus.
Let’s revisit our earlier example of a dog barking and lunging at the door when they see a delivery person approach. The goal would be to teach your dog a different way to react to that by forming calmer, more positive associations.
In order to avoid an expensive online shopping habit, you can stage a fake delivery person using a friend that your dog doesn’t easily recognize and have them carry a box or object while approaching your house.
Once your dog sees them, but ideally before they react (which may be difficult at first, so it’s okay if it doesn’t happen exactly like that), guide them towards a designated place using the “place” cue or their crate. Have them sit or lie down there and reward.
Note: It’s helpful if your dog already has a strong “” or “crate” behavior, so you may have to take a step back and start by working on that.
Over time, you can have your delivery person get closer and closer to the house, eventually knocking on the door or ringing the bell.
Once your dog has mastered this with the fake delivery person, you’ll be ready to take on real deliveries. Don’t have any shipments on the way? It’s a perfect time to stock up on your dog’s :)
Slow and steady wins the race with both approaches. It may take a while to see noticeable changes, and that’s okay. Your dog also may not have the same desired response every time, and that’s okay too! It’s all part of the process.
Need help desensitizing your dog to sounds? .
TIPS, TRICKS, AND MISTAKES TO AVOID
This type of training will take time, practice, and patience. But there are things to keep in mind to help you have a successful experience.
- Reward for calm behavior. Any time your dog is laying down or sitting calmly, reward them verbally or with a treat so they know this is a good thing to do.
- Always have training treats on hand. You never know when you’ll need to reward your dog, or when they will encounter their trigger. We recommend keeping a on you at all times when you’re out with your dog, as well as stashing them around your house in common places like by the door.
- Give your dog plenty of enrichment activities. Promote calmness with enrichment activities like puzzle toys and .
- Don’t rush the process. This type of training is long-term. Rushing your dog’s exposure to their triggers will not only hinder progress, but it will also stress them out. Be mindful of your dog’s trigger threshold and try not to push beyond it.
- Don’t punish your dog for reacting. Your dog having a reaction is a sign that they’ve been pushed past their threshold by our training activity. That’s not their fault! Manage the environment better next time, and be sure to only use positive reinforcement during training.
The main takeaway here is to keep your dog calm and comfortable. That will help them truly grasp the goal of their training while leading to more successful long-term outcomes.
SEE IT IN ACTION
Counterconditioning and desensitization take patience, practice, and sometimes additional guidance.
The Counter-Conditioning and Desensitization resource in the Pupford Academy has more information on this topic and how to implement them with your dog. While you’re there, check out all the has to offer – it’s everything you need to raise a happy, healthy pup!