Counter-Conditioning and Desensitization


Counter-conditioning involves changing your dog’s association with a scary or arousing stimulus from negative to positive. Desensitization is starting with a very low-level intensity of aversive stimulus until the dog habituates to (or changes his association with) the aversive, and then gradually increasing the strength until the dog is comfortable with the stimulus at full intensity. The easiest way to give most dogs a positive association and to help them become comfortable with a stimulus is by using something he finds extremely pleasurable. For a food-motivated dog you could use very high-value, really yummy treats. If your dog is more motivated by toys, you could use his most coveted and desirable toy to engage him in play. Briefly, here’s how a person would use the CC&D process to help change her dog’s reaction to people of a different race or appearance from a fearful or aggressive one to a happy, friendly one.

Ideally, the handler would bring her dog to an environment where she would be assured of seeing the kind of people her dog is uncomfortable with – but where there is room to control the distance between the dog and the people.

It’s important to start with the scary stimuli (in this case, the people of a different appearance) at a great enough distance from the dog so that the dog notices them, but is not yet extremely fearful or aroused (this is called the threshold distance). As soon as and whenever the handler sees her dog noticing someone, she can begin feeding the dog a constant stream of tiny bits of high-value treats, or begin offering play with the toy to the dog. As soon as the scary stimulus is out of view, or far enough away that the dog stops paying any attention to the stimulus, the handler stops feeding the treats or the game.

This process is repeated until the sight of the scary stimuli consistently prompts the dog to look at his handler with a happy smile and a “Yay! Where’s my treat?” or “Are we gonna play?” expression. This is a conditioned emotional response (CER) – your dog’s association with seeing people of the novel appearance is now positive one rather than a negative one. The process is continued, with increasing intensity of the scary stimulus: the handler moves the dog closer to the scary stimuli, or stages the exercise in a location where there are even more of the scary stimuli. Care is taken to keep the dog “under threshold” – happy and comfortable, and never stressed or pushed to the point of having a negative reaction to the stimuli (see Could My Dog Be Racist?”).

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WDJ's Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.