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What is Dog Desensitization Training and Counter-Conditioning?

Written by Anna Hollisey


3 gorgeous dogs waiting for their reward

Desensitization is a training technique used to reduce the fear or stress which is caused by specific triggers. It involves introducing the trigger very gently and gradually so that the dog becomes ‘desensitized’. On the other hand, counter-conditioning involves changing a response from negative to positive through gradual training.

What Fears Can Be Addressed Using Desensitization Training?

Dogs get stressed about all kinds of things, some of them unusual!  

Desensitization is commonly used to help dogs who are sensitive to noises. If, for example, your dog is triggered by next-door’s dog howling, fireworks, or your back door blowing in the wind, desensitization training can be a helpful technique. 

Desensitization can also be utilized to help dogs who are sensitive about certain types of touch. For example, some dogs may be stressed about getting their claws clipped or their teeth brushed.

Sometimes, dogs develop a fear of something that has caused them trauma in the past, like a set of steps where they fell, or a slippery floor where they twisted a leg. It’s a rational response (and in some cases should be tackled at the cause, like replacing your flooring) but it can often be resolved through gentle exposure therapy.

How to Conduct Desensitization Training

You know your dog best, so let your instinct guide you to the best way to start this training.  It’s impossible to start too small – instead, take a gentle approach so that your dog doesn’t reach panic-level.

That means adjusting the level of the ‘trigger’ that you’re using for exposure. If your dog is afraid of fireworks, don’t start playing fireworks sounds at full volume. Adjust the exposure by changing different factors like:

  • Distance. Always begin with the trigger quite far away so that your dog doesn’t detect an imminent threat but can just glimpse it while you distract them.
  • Volume. In cases of sound desensitization, you should start by playing sounds at very low volume (or by staying far away, if they are emitted from an external source). Tip: For sounds like fireworks or footsteps, search for dog desensitization videos on YouTube.
  • Time. At first, keep the exposure time extremely short. It’s better if your dog has consistently good experiences, so you don’t need to take any risks. Patience is your friend here.
  • Similarity. For instance, if your dog is afraid of one set of steps, start by exposing them to different steps (shallower and wider ones). 
  • Location. Remember that your dog is naturally more relaxed in certain places (like their home) and it will be easier to start the training there, before progressing to the wide world.

While your dog is exposed to their fear trigger, they’ll look to you for signals. The most important thing you can do is stay calm and collected. Don’t make a fuss of your dog; carry on with your normal activities so that your dog knows you’re not reacting to the trigger. It’s human nature to want to reassure and comfort our dogs when we can see they’re stressed. But, if your dog sees you reacting to their stress inductor, they could interpret it as reinforcing their reaction to be stressed. Repeated time and time again, this practice will help your dog to stay calm too.

What Is Response Substitution?

Response substitution is used in counter-conditioning. It involves training a dog to respond to a trigger in a positive, instead of a negative, way.  It can be used when your puppy starts to play-bite or bark at the cat. It’s useful for any situation where your dog responds in the ‘wrong’ way.

One of the most common response substitutions is when we see our dogs becoming reactive to other dogs. Whether it’s because they had a bad experience with another dog as a puppy or some other reason, if you notice your dog starting to drop their shoulders, raise their hackles or growl or bark at other dogs, you’ll want to change that behavior into something more positive. In this case, a good response substitution is to focus their attention onto you instead of the other dog. They can then learn from you that the other dog is not a threat and take their lead from your behavior.  

Use Positive Reinforcement. 

Remember that our dogs don’t appreciate human etiquette. They don’t know why they shouldn’t bark at the cat or let you brush their teeth. If you scold them, their stress levels will rise and their behavior is likely to become worse. Keeping it positive – and actively rewarding the behavior that you want – is proven to get better results!  

Examples of Counter-Conditioning…

When you use positive reinforcement training, counter-conditioning is a great trick to keep up your sleeve. It requires time and consistency, but smart dogs will soon learn which behaviors serve them best! Here are some of the ways that counter-conditioning can be used:

  • Teach your pup how to play. Puppies are bursting with energy – and that leads to overexcited behavior like play-biting and digging. Don’t scold them. Divert their energy and show them alternatives. For example, the second your pup bites your hand, tell them “Toy”, instead (and place a toy in front of them until they make the association). When they pick it up, reward them with praise or (even better) a game of tug-of-war. The second their teeth make contact with human flesh, the original game stops, it only resumes when they’ve diverted their attention to the toy. 
  • Teach your dog to greet people correctly. Start inside the house and ask a friend or family member to help. When they come in, ensure the dog is sitting down. When your dog stays grounded for attention, reward them with petting and verbal praise; remove that reward immediately if they jump up.
  • Teach your dog to stop licking your face. Counter-conditioning is a simple equation: This behavior = this reward. When your dog is close to your face and not licking, give them plenty of praise, but stop abruptly and move away if they lick. 

What Rewards Can You Use?

When your dog displays the ‘correct’ behavior, you give them a reward. What’s best – treats, praise, or petting?  Expert Stanley Coren reported in Psychology Today about a study dating back to 1967. It was conducted by US Army trainers and compared different ‘rewards’ including verbal praise and petting. It showed that dogs preferred to receive petting – and responded more quickly when they expected to get it! 

It's best to test different rewards for your dog. Some dogs will do anything for a bit of freshly-cooked chicken, while others might prefer a tummy-rub.  You might choose a reward to suit the situation, such as allowing your dog to greet a visitor after they’ve sat down nicely on command.

Further Reading

We have loads of dog-training content here on the FoTP blog!  To avoid nervous responses in the first place, learn how to properly socialize your young dog/learn/dog-training/how-to-socialize-a-dog or pick up tips on supporting a nervous dog/learn/dog-lifestyle/rehoming-a-nervous-dog.  As we mentioned above, it’s super important to use Positive Reinforcement Techniques/learn/dog-training/positive-reinforcement-training-for-dogs