Desensitization and Counterconditioning: Helping Your Dog with Fears

Learn some techniques for helping a dog with fears.

Counterconditioning is the process of helping a dog develop a positive association with a trigger instead of a negative one. Desensitization means exposing the dog to the trigger in small doses over time to help the dog get more used to it. The two techniques, when appropriately used together, can be quite useful in getting dogs over fear and anxiety.

Teach Your Dog a More Desirable Response to a Trigger

If your dog shows fear or anxiety to a stimulus, you can help her learn a different response. The best way to do that is to reward the behavior you want rather than punish the behavior you don't. Using punishment can make the behavior worse because your dog won't necessarily understand what you're punishing for. That can increase fear and anxiety rather than decreasing it.

Instead, use desensitization in conjunction with counterconditioning to get your dog to respond differently to the trigger and then reward your dog for that calm behavior.

Here is an example:

Say your dog is afraid of the vacuum. Here is how a desensitization and counterconditioning plan may look for you and your dog.

Over time, your dog will learn that it's more rewarding to react calmly to the vacuum cleaner than to act fearfully around it.

General Tips for Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Here are some things to keep in mind when you are planning a desensitization and counterconditioning treatment for your dog:

If your dog's fear reaction is aggressive, don't attempt a desensitization and counterconditioning program on your own. Consult your veterinarian or a veterinary behavior specialist.

Examples of When to Try Counterconditioning and Desensitization

Here are some examples of situations that may be improved by counterconditioning:

Additionally, the techniques can be used in situations where the dog is exhibiting overexcitement rather than fear, such as:

Any situation in which you would like your dog to react differently than she is to a particular stimulus, you can use the techniques. Start small/slow/low and reward for the behavior you want. Gradually, make the stimulus larger/faster/louder or introduce more significant distractions. Any time your dog stops focusing on the positive response and succumbs to the old behavior, back up to the previous step for a bit longer.

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