The goal of desensitisation and counter conditioning is to help your pet learn new coping strategies – new ways of dealing with situations, people or places that make them fearful, anxious, or exhibit undesirable behaviour such as over-excitement by jumping up or barking.
Desensitisation means making the dog less sensitive to a source of fear or over-excitement through regular and controlled exposure to that stimulus. Counter conditioning means to give the dog something else to focus on, to distract it from the source of fear or over-excitement, which will reduce or prevent undesired behaviours from occurring.
To do this, we are going to expose the dog to whatever it is that causes the anxiety or fear – the stimulus – but we are going to do in a very gentle and gradual manner. We are going to use positive reinforcement to reward the dog for facing the stimulus without resorting to anxiety, fear, over-excitement, or any other undesirable behaviours. We are also going to ask the dog to focus on us – the handler – instead of the source of fear, by asking it to look at us, or to perform actions such as sit or drop, or even tricks, such as spin or shake, to receive rewards
The first step is to help your pet to learn to relax and be calm on a verbal command. Animals cannot learn if they are emotionally aroused. For this reason, it is important to first teach your dog to be calm and confident, and to focus on you, the handler, instead of on whatever it is that is making the dog anxious, fearful or over-excited.
This is fully explained in our fact sheet on Calm Confidence Training. Please complete this training before you proceed further with desensitisation and counter conditioning.
The adult who has the most control over the pet should handle these training sessions, but all adult members of the household should know and use the same training methods. A leash is essential and, for additional safety, a head collar is advised. A crate may be necessary for extra control in severe cases of anxiety or aggression.
- Establish the stimulus gradient before you start. The ‘stimulus’ is whatever is causing the anxiety, fear, aggression, over-excitement or other undesired behaviour, so this means working out how the dog’s response varies depending on the nature of the stimulus. This may include the distance away from the feared object (e.g. an approaching dog), the speed of approach (e.g. runners, bicycles, skateboards, trucks), the size of the object (e.g. is the dog fearful of all sizes of children/dogs, or just toddlers/medium to large dogs, or just teenagers/giant breeds), the personal characteristics (sex or age of the person/dog, whether they’re carrying an umbrella, wearing a hat or beard, pushing a pram, riding a motorbike), or length of time of exposure to the feared object (e.g. does the dog appear to cope okay for a certain amount of time and then just ‘snap’). Once the above has been analysed, organize the stimuli from the least likely to cause a problematic response to the one most likely to elicit the problem behaviour. Always work on the easy one first.
- Establish a reward gradient – a range of things the pet wants – to be the rewards for the positive reinforcement of the dog’s successes. Find rewards that are extremely valuable (e.g. tiny pieces of bacon, chicken, cheese or devon), some of lesser value (e.g. dried liver treats), and finally lowest value treats (Shmackos or, in highly food-motivated dogs, dry dog food). Usually high value (jackpot) treats will be consumable human food, such as fresh chicken/red meat, and, in the really fussy eaters, this may be all you are able to use. Some dogs prefer rewards other than food, such as a rub on the tummy, or a game of tug. Your reward gradient may include all of these things. It is important to work out exactly what your dog MOST wants, because this is what it is going to work best on, and try hardest to win. (Note: dry dog food is rarely exciting enough for a dog to be bothered, so is not a good training reward item). Once you establish the order of these rewards, they should be reserved for treatment/training sessions and withheld at all other times, to ensure they remain really special.
- Engage in multiple daily training sessions lasting no more than10 minutes, using the following training guidelines:
- Expose the pet to the stimulus at a very low level, well below that which is likely to evoke the anxious/fearful/undesirable reaction. For example, if the stimulus is a large dog, start from a considerable distance away – even several hundred metres. If your dog can see the other dog but does not show any signs of anxiety or fear, you are probably far enough away. If your dog sees the ‘fear dog’ and shows any signs at all of anxiety, fear, over-excitement etc, you are too close.
- When exposed to this low level stimulus, the animal should be rewarded for
calm, relaxed, obedient behaviour. Rewards may include any combination of affection, praise, tasty food treats, a quiet game etc. Positive reinforcement is absolutely essential to the success of this behaviour shaping process, so be liberal with your rewards – lots of affection, encouragement and/or treats should be given whenever the dog successfully approaches, even by just one step closer, to the cause of fear or anxiety.
- With each success, gradually increase the intensity of the stimulus (e.g. move slightly closer), maintaining a generous reward program for every achievement, until the stimulus is at full strength (e.g. right up close) without evoking a fearful/undesirable response. Depending on what the situation is, this may take one session, a few sessions, or it may take many, many sessions. Small increments are essential to ensure that exposure to the stimulus at any stage does not elicit anxiety, fear or undesirable behaviour.
- If the animal responds with anxiety, fear, aggression, or any undesirable behaviour, the stimulus intensity was too strong (i.e. you went too close, too soon). It is not the dogs’ fault you went too close and made it fearful – it is your responsibility to ensure this does not happen, so NEVER scold the pet (but nor should you reward it). All you can do is count it as a loss and reduce the exposure (e.g. turn around and go back well away again) until the pet is calm, then begin all over again. Get it right this time – take smaller steps towards the stimulus. Do not give up and end the session immediately after a failure (see the next point).
- It is important to end each session on a good note, and this does not necessarily mean that you have to achieve ‘contact’ – a successful exposure up close to the stimulus. You must finish on a good note, even if it is only a small win (e.g. remaining calm from a considerable distance), to ensure the dog has a positive association with the eliciting stimulus. This will make progress easier in the next session. For this reason, if a failure occurs (you went too close too soon) and the dog became anxious or fearful, it is even more important to end the session on a good note, so never just give up and stop the training session immediately after a failure. You must retreat and start again, and even if you only make it half way, or a quarter the distance back to where you were when you exposed the dog to too high an intensity of the stimulus (went too close), that’s okay! Finish the session there, on a good note, with lots of praise and treats to reinforce the dog’s success, which will ensure it remembers the controlled exposure to the eliciting stimulus as a good experience.
- Avoid the following pitfalls, which will make progress more difficult:
- Each time the pet has an opportunity to engage in the undesirable behaviour, the behaviour is strengthened. In other words, each time a dog is exposed to something that makes it anxious, fearful, over-excited etc, it makes the whole pattern of behaviour worse. So, for example, if a dog that is fearful of large black dogs has an uncontrolled encounter with a large black dog at the dog park and becomes anxious/fearful/aggressive, or exhibits undesirable behaviour such as avoidance barking, that response is actually strengthened, and so our training progress will suffer a severe setback. Therefore all situations known to elicit undesirable responses must be avoided, unless they are part of the controlled training exercise, until the situation improves. This may mean curtailing walks, confining the pet when visitors come over or when the children are nearby, not allowing the pet outside in the yard unattended and off leash, not allowing aggressive displays at windows, doors, and fences, not taking the dog to the shops or the park etc.
- Avoid long training sessions where the pet becomes distracted, agitated or
upset. This is also detrimental to training success and is a waste of time. Keep sessions short and end on a really good note, long before the pet (or the handler) becomes tired or agitated.
- Take very small steps for each progression stage. If the pet becomes very reactive, the stimulus was too close or too intense, and the handler must ensure that future sessions involve better control of the stimulus intensity. In other words, you may need to be quite a distance away for the pet to remain calm and controlled, and you may only be able to approach in very small stages. Remember, the pet only learns new coping strategies when he is calm and feeling no anxiety or fear, so rushing this process achieves nothing.
- Progress slowly and be conservative in expectations. End each session on a positive response with a happy pet. Be prepared that it may take days, weeks or even months to achieve the desired result and may take dozens of small progressions.
As the situation improves, the dog should be encouraged to engage in alternative (desired) behaviours whenever the eliciting stimulus is present, such as sit/drop training, focus (‘watch’) training, and trick training, to occupy his attention. By occupying the dog’s attention, we are distracting him from focusing on the person/dog/object which is likely to cause undesired behaviours if the dog pays that stimulus close attention. We therefore teach the dog alternative, more desirable behaviours – new coping strategies. This is explained in detail in our Calm Confidence Training notes, where the dog is taught to focus on the handler through the ‘watch’ command.
This can be a long and potentially tedious process, so remember that all training must be fun and enjoyable for both the handler and the dog. Keep it short, keep it light and keep it fun, so that the dog can be trained to feel positive emotions, not negative ones, when faced by something that causes anxiety, fear or over-excitability.