Counter-Conditioning & Desensitization – Understanding the Fancy Science Terms

026Many dog trainers and behaviorists use Counter-conditioning and Desensitization as part of a behavior modification program. The average dog owner often has no idea what this means. I say this because in my many years of private practice, most clients have said to me they are using food to distract or bribe their dog in tense situations when describing working with their dogs per my instruction. There may be some truth to their statements depending on the context of the situation, but for the most part, the concept goes deeper than that. There is something primal being addressed when this form of behavior modification is being used.

This form of learning works to change your dog’s already established association with something he doesn’t like or scares him from negative to positive by pairing it with something he loves. Desensitization addresses changing the pairing over time at a safe distance, sub-threshold (the next article will address Management and how to work your dog sub-threshold).

Here’s How it Works

The most important thing to remember is that classical conditioning involves automatic or reflexive responses, and not voluntary behavior. Examples of involuntary responses are salivation, nausea, increased or decreased heartrate, pupil dilation or constriction, or even a reflexive motor response (such as touching a hot stove).

Here are a few examples of classical conditioning to help you better understand your dog:

  • Think about connection between eucalyptus smell and a spa: a spa feels good (relaxation response, increased alpha wave production, etc.); a spa smells like eucalyptus. Over time, eucalyptus can evoke the same chemical response on its own (subconscious). By itself, eucalyptus doesn't necessarily smell great to everyone.
  • Every time your dog gets in the car, you take him to the vet. Over time, you may classically condition him to hate the car; his cortisol levels etc. may rise when he sees the car because he associates it to the vet.
  • Every time you get in the car in the rain, you skid. Over time, you may classically condition yourself to be fearful of driving in rain or cloudy weather, etc. and your fear may generalize to a fear of driving.

Food is a primary reinforcer and that's why it works so effectively in counter-conditioning (changing your dog’s already established association) and why trainers choose to use it in behavior modification programs with dogs. Food creates a physiological reaction in the dog’s body which is associated with feeling good.

I like to use high-value food items because for most dogs, that’s their hundred-dollar bill. In addition, food is easy for a person to manage and deliver when working with their dog. Over time, while working the dog sub-threshold, it is possible to change a dog’s association with the trigger (the thing, person, animal, or situation that causes the dog to become upset).

Building the Dog’s Confidence and Comfort Level

When working with a client, I take many things into consideration, such as the dog’s severity of upset, living situation, the client’s capabilities, and how long the dog has been rehearsing the behavior. Over time, we can change different variables, based on how the dog is doing. We might move the trigger closer, or have the trigger move around, or add more of the same trigger, or work multiple triggers at the same time.

One of my dogs, Marvel, competes in the performance dog sport of agility. As I have written in previous articles, I have been working on building his confidence around dogs, strangers, and busy environments while reducing is stress for the past year and a half. Agility competitions, seminars, and classes have a lot going on—Marvel has to negotiate multiple triggers: other dogs; the judge following us around; people on the sidelines; even barking. My clients in New York City have dogs who have to negotiate other dogs walking on the sidewalk, trucks, buses, crowds of people. It all depends on what the dog is nervous about and what the environment has to offer.

Sometimes the reality is there is so much going on in the environment that the best you can do is manage the dog to get him from Point A to Point B. I have found this to be true with some of my clients who live in New York City, for example. There are just too many triggers for the dog to negotiate. Sometimes it is just about distracting the dog to prevent an explosion of upset that could look like barking and lunging because the dog is so stressed out. I will talk about how to support dogs in these situations in a future article.

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Positively Expert: Bobbie Bhambree

Bobbie Bhambree is a dog trainer, a dog behavior consultant, and an agility competitor with over fifteen years’ experience in dog training and behavior. Bobbie is the Founder & Director of DogCentric Training & Behavior, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants...


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