Desensitization and Counterconditioning

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HOW TO HELP YOUR FEARFUL OR REACTIVE DOG

Reactive Golden retriever

2 Incredibly Successful Positive Reinforcement Dog Training Methods

Although the words are a little intimidating, counterconditioning and desensitization are two simple yet effective positive training processes that can change your dog’s emotional response to an object or stimulus.

Translation? Desensitization and counterconditioning can change your dog’s emotional reaction when encountering something it fears from “Danger! Danger!” to “Oh boy Oh boy! I get treats every time I see one of those!”

Some may know this type of training as open bar closed bar dog training.

The possibilities are endless. Imagine changing your dog’s emotional response to things like:

  • Trimming their nails
  • Approaching or passing dogs
  • Approaching or passing people
  • Fear of a certain noise

I could list many more, but this gives you an idea of the variety of situations that dog desensitization and counterconditioning can remedy.

Translating the Scientific Explanation

Woman confused reading about desensitization and counterconditioning
photo by Bruce Mars

If you research this training approach, articles get really technical really quick. Words like “reciprocal inhibition,” “cognitive processing of the aversive stimulus,” and “animal analogue” get thrown around like commonplace descriptions and make it hard for the average dog owner (namely, me) to wrap our brains around what they are talking about.

So, I’d like to talk about these training methods at a level that the average dog owner can relate to, understand, and try with their dog.

Before we delve into the processes and how to do them, let’s spend a little time discussing what these words mean.

Desensitization

dog desensitization showing dog looking at faraway object
photo by Donald Clark

The process of desensitization involves exposing your dog to the thing it is afraid of at a distance (or an intensity) where it doesn’t scare the dog or invoke an aggressive or fearful response. When the dog is completely comfortable at that distance/intensity, you gradually decrease the distance, stopping each time and waiting until your dog is comfortable.

It’s important that you realize that distance is only one factor in how far away you need to be from the object to prevent a fearful/aggressive reaction from your dog. Is the object moving? Making noise? Details like that need to be accounted for when you are finding a “successful” distance from the object.

Desensitization can only change your dog’s response from scared to neutral, where they are “OK” with the object or noise. It doesn’t make them happy about the stimulus, or excited to see/experience the stimulus. This is where counterconditioning comes in.

Counterconditioning

man doing countercounditioning with dog
photo by Mylene2401

Counterconditioning is when you try to change the dog’s emotional response to an object or stimulus. The goal is to change the object from something your dog doesn’t like or is afraid of to something it likes.

To accomplish this, every time the object appears or event happens, for the whole time your dog sees/hears it they get really yummy high value treats (suggestions later in the article). When the object disappears or noise stops, you immediately stop giving treats.

Over time, your dog learns that the appearance of that object causes him to get a treat jackpot. Every.Single.Time. This detail is important: if you only give your dog treats *some* of the times it sees the scary object or hears the scary sound, you won’t establish the connection of scary thing = treat jackpot and your dog’s emotional response won’t change.

This means that you want a treat pack filled with high value treats on your hip 24/7 if unplanned encounters are a possibility. That way, if you are out and about with your dog and have an unplanned encounter with the scary object/noise, you can give your dog a jackpot and reinforce your training.

Jean Donaldson’s Open Bar/Closed Bar Analogy

bar with open sign lit up

Jean Donaldson has a great visual of this training technique in her book Dogs Are from Neptune. She calls it the “open bar/closed bar” technique, and lists the key details as follows:

  • The second the scary stimulus appears the bar (feeding high value treats) opens
  • The second it disappears the bar closes
  • The bar consists of a very special food that the worried dog does not get in any other circumstance
  • Only the scary stimulus – nothing else – makes the bar open
  • The bar opens regardless of the dog’s behavior

Don’t get me wrong – the training session will be more effective if you avoid letting your dog go over threshold (barking, growling, etc). BUT, it’s important that you treat the dog when the stimulus is present whether they bark or not.

So set your dog up for success by doing desensitization first and using the correct distance to ensure your dog won’t go over threshold, but if life happens and your dog barks, keep treating until the stimulus disappears.

Now you can start to understand why desensitization and counterconditioning are often used together.

Before You Start, Define What is Scary to Your Dog – in Detail!

notebook and pen for dog training
photo by DarkWorkX

A lot of us would define what is scary too generally:

“My dog is afraid of other dogs”

 “ My dog is afraid of the sound of our vacuum cleaner”

To be effective, you need to think about it a little more carefully and break it down. List the item your dog is afraid of, but underneath it list conditions that make it worse of better. These details are important – you would be amazed at subtle changes that can increase or decrease a dog’s fear.

Here’s a story that illustrates these subtle changes

I worked with an amazing trainer to help lessen my dog’s fear of people. When I would be perplexed at why my dog barked at one person who was walking by but wasn’t too worried about the next person, she pointed out subtleties that made my dog more afraid:

Hands were in pockets

Hat on or hood over head

Person was looking right at my dog, watching them

Person had an unusual gait with a slight shuffle

In these circumstances I had to increase the distance to keep my dog under threshold. I learned to believe my dog’s reactions were justified and look for details I was missing. Instead of being frustrated at him for reactions that didn’t make sense to me, I studied situations where his response baffled me to look for subtleties I had missed.

Using the general statements from above, let’s try defining the fear more specifically:

Fear: My dog is afraid of other dogs

My dog’s fear of the other dog increases if the other dog is

  • coming straight towards my dog
  • running
  • tail is up
  • tense/pulling/walking stiffly
  • big (larger dogs cause a bigger reaction than smaller ones)
  • barking
  • looking directly at my dog

My dog’s fear of the other dog decreases if the other dog is

  • walking away
  • relaxed
  • moving slowly
  • looking away, sniffing the ground
  • a smaller dog
  • walking by but not directly at us; crossing ahead more in a perpendicular manner

Fear: My dog is terrified of the vacuum

Vacuum becomes more scary if it is

  • turned on
  • moving
  • moving towards him
  • in the same room

Vacuum becomes less scary if it is

  • farther away
  • not moving
  • turned off
  • turned off and lying on the floor

If your dog has multiple fear issues, choose one to work on – don’t work on multiple at one time. List and detail each fear separately.

Examples of Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Example 1: Your dog is afraid of other dogs

  1. Find a place where dogs commonly walk on a sidewalk or trail and where you are able to stand a good distance away and watch them, far enough that your dog feels safe and won’t bark. Don’t feel bad if you have to start off reeeeeeeally far away!
  2. Fill your treat pack up with a treat you know your dog absolutely loves; I like mixing cooked chicken with dried salmon skin pieces, it makes for a nice smelly reward.
  3. Take your dog to your training spot, and when a dog appears start feeding your dog treat after treat. Continue with the treats until the dog disappears from view. Repeat until you see signs that your dog is very relaxed.
  4. Move a little bit closer. Repeat step 3 when the next dog appears. Repeat until dog is relaxed when dogs go by.
  5. Continue to decrease the distance, little by little, IF your dog shows signs of relaxation. You may only get to a certain distance and decide you will stop there for the day because you can see your dog is getting tired or isn’t relaxed. Remember – better to stop too soon and have your session end successfully then push it too far.

Example 2: Your dog is afraid of the vacuum

  1. Start with the vacuum turned off and standing at the far side of a room with a doorway.
  2. Fill up that treat pack with irresistible treats!
  3. With your dog on leash, move to the doorway so the vacuum in in view. Start treating and continue for 10 seconds. Step out of view, stop treating. Continue until dog seems relaxed at that distance. If your dog is really afraid, you can start with the vacuum on its side on the floor.
  4. This time, take a step into the room. Treat until you leave the room. As your dog becomes more relaxed, slowly decrease the distance until your dog is comfortable standing next to the vacuum.
  5. Now add sound. Move back out of the room, and have a friend or family member in the room with the vacuum. The minute the vacuum turns on, start treating your dog. When it gets turned off, stop treating. Continue this until your dog is relaxed listening to the vacuum go on and off.
  6. Next, once the vacuum turns on, start treating and take a step into the doorway. Step away, still treating, until the vacuum turns off.
  7. Continue to decrease the distance, little by little, IF your dog shows signs of relaxation. You may only get to a certain distance and decide you will stop there for the day because you can see your dog is getting tired or isn’t relaxed. Remember – better to stop too soon and have your session end successfully then push it too far.

Common Mistakes

wrong way sign

This is where having a trainer work with you is a HUGE help. They notice little errors you might be making and correct them, which makes your training a lot more effective.

Some of the most common mistakes people make include:

1. Treats aren’t high value

You need to choose treats which you dog loves with every part of its being – remember, they are distracting him from something very scary. In her article Choosing the Right Treats, Karen Pryor gives some great suggestions:

  • diced hot dogs
  • cut-up deli meats (e.g. ham, turkey)
  • diced liverwurst
  • meatballs
  • bits of bacon
  • leftover steak
  • bites of burger
  • diced chicken
dog licking lips during positive reinforcement dog training
photo by James Barker

She recommends treats that are nice and soft but not too slimy so they are easy to grab and give to your dog.

She also reminds us to make sure you cut the treats into small pieces. Remember, you are going to be giving your dog A LOT of treats. Pea-sized is plenty big for bigger dogs, and half of that for small dogs.

2. Incorrect Timing

When you are counterconditioning, you have to make sure the treats start AFTER your dog notices the scary object/noise. If you start too early the dog will learn that the food predicts that the scary thing will happen.

In addition, you need to be keenly aware of unconscious changes in body language you may do before the scary object/noise appears. Your dog can start to associate these changes with the appearance of the scary object, and your counterconditioning won’t be as effective.

Example: When I was walking my reactive dog and we saw another dog ahead in the distance, I would start treating my dog while that dog was in sight. What I unknowingly also did, however, was slow down when I caught a glimpse of the dog (my dog hadn’t seen it yet) and open my treat pack to get ready, sometimes pausing to see if the dog was heading towards us. When my dog saw the other dog I would start to treat, but it wasn’t working to change his emotional response because my precursor of slowing down and opening the treat pack submarined the treating itself.

To my surprise, I began noticing that whenever I slowed down or stopped (to tie a shoe or some other benign reason) my dog started scanning around in a paranoid way. He had learned that slowing down/stopping was a predictor of an oncoming scary dog or person. OOPS.

To fix the problems I unintentionally created I do a few things differently now.
1) I don’t touch my treat pack until my dog has sighted the other dog
2) I stop a lot and randomly change directions on my walks now so he doesn’t pair it with an oncoming dog anymore.

3. Decreasing distance before the dog is ready

You don’t want to move closer to the scary object until you see happy body language in your dog. Look for signs that your dog is associating the appearance of the scary object/noise with a happy reaction.

dog showing stress by yawning
yawning dog photo by Robert Gramner

If you see signs of tension or worry (yawning, shark biting when taking treats, tense body, closed mouth, raised tail or tail between legs, etc) you need to increase your distance. Wait until you have a consistent happy reaction before you decrease the distance.

4. Using a clicker or praising your dog when he sees the other dog

Don’t get me wrong, clicker training and praise are good tools for dog training.

When counterconditioning, however, you aren’t trying to mark a good behavior. Your goal is to change the dog’s emotional response. So save your clicker for another training project!

5. Not treating the dog if they go over threshold

In counterconditioning the dog gets treated when they see the scary thing. No matter what.

If you are close enough to the scary thing that your dog barks or growls, that is YOUR mistake. Treat your dog anyway while the scary thing is present. (and don’t get mad at your dog, they didn’t choose the distance!)

If your dog is too worked up to take the treats, move away to a distance where they calm down and treat them until the scary thing is out of sight.

Use your mistakes as a learning opportunities; on your next try increase the distance so the barking or growling doesn’t happen.

How do you know if it’s working?

relaxed dog body language

Learn to read your dog’s body language. Before counterconditioning, your dog’s reaction might include: ears up, tail up, stiff/tense body, closed mouth, leaning forward stance…or… tail between legs, hiding behind you, panicking and trying to get away.

If you are doing counterconditioning correctly you will see signs that the dog is happy and expecting food, such as a relaxed tail, a happy, open mouth, and a relaxed body. They might even keep looking at you because they aren’t worried about the scary thing anymore!

How a trainer can help

As I said earlier, having a trainer help you get started really pays off. They notice little errors you might be making and correct them, which makes your training a lot more effective.

They will also notice subtleties about your body language and movements that can reduce the effectiveness of counterconditioning, like when I slowed my pace and opened my treat pack.

Even one or two sessions could make a significant difference in the success of your training. Doing periodic check-in sessions is even better.

Variations

When you read about dog desensitization and counterconditioning online, you will see a lot of variations, especially if you watch videos. Trainers may start your training program with desensitization and counterconditioning, and once your dog’s emotional reaction to the object has changed they may add other training methods that build on this new comfort.

You may start to see trainers have the person mark the moment the dog sees the other object, training the dog’s behavior by using a clicker or word to mark a certain thing. These trainers are now working on training a behavior, not changing an emotional response.

These variations are another reason it is nice to have a trainer you check in with periodically to help formulate and monitor your training plan. They can better assess where you are at and if your training efforts need any changes or modifications.

Video examples

Here are a few video examples to help you see counterconditioning in action:

Watch these Dr. Sophia Yin videos in which she uses counterconditioning to change a one dog’s emotional reaction a toenail trim and the other dog’s emotional reaction to face-blowing:

Video used with permission.
Copyright 2020 by CattleDog Publishing
Video used with permission.
Copyright 2020 by CattleDog Publishing

These videos are just two of a wealth of videos and articles that Dr. Sophia Yin created to educate and inform pet owners and the veterinary community. You can find them at https://www.DrSophiaYin.com.

The next video is a great example of Jean Donaldson’s “open bar closed bar” counterconditioning training for a dog’s reactivity to people. I like that it shows not only working at a distance where the dog doesn’t go over threshold, but also shows that when life happens (surprise person appears) the treating continues and a new safe distance quickly gets established by throwing the treats in the opposite direction to help the dog move away.

The open bar closed bar counterconditioning game by Jean Donaldson

Positive Reinforcement Dog Training Reminders

Training methods like desensitization and counterconditioning are positive ways to not only train your dog, but to make your dog’s life happier and less stressful.

It’s important to remember:

  • It’s OK to make mistakes! Don’t beat yourself up, we all make them. The key is to learn from them and not to get discouraged.
  • Positive dog training techniques take time. Don’t expect changes to happen overnight, be persistent and slowly but surely your dog will make progress.
  • Aim for short and successful training sessions. When your dog gets too tired, training is less effective. When you get too tired, you are more likely to make mistakes and get frustrated with your dog.

Time to Start Counterconditioning your Dog!

relaxed dog during successfull counterconditioning
photo by picupyourphoto

What are you waiting for? Go get your super yummy high value treats, load up your treat pack, and get started!

Have some of you had success desensitizing and/or counterconditioning your dog? Share your story below to motivate your fellow readers and help them realize the benefit it could have for their dog.

Naturally,

Karen

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Karen Pedersen Written by:

Karen is an independent copywriter who loves dogs and everything about them. She is married to Scott, has 4 kids, and likes to take a natural and holistic approach to living and pet ownership.

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