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Used in combination, counter-conditioning and desensitization methods can help change a dog's emotional response toward a stimulus in a powerful way, changing unwanted behavior to the positive.

This method is designed to first find the threshold at which the pet first responds, so that the pet can be gradually exposed to progressively more intense levels of the stimulus without the undesirable behavior being elicited.


If the incremental increases are too large, or occur too quickly, the techniques will either not be effective, or may even make the problem worse. Counter-conditioning generally refers to changing the pet’s mood (through positive pairings and associations), and response substitution refers to training the desired behaviors.




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In order for these techniques to be most successful, your pet should not be put in any situation that triggers the problem behavior.
Response substitution is a technique in which an undesirable behavioral response to a stimulus or situation is changed to one that is desirable.

Behavior modification programs of this sort should be designed and carried out in such small steps that the problem behavior never occurs.

A counter-conditioning and desensitization program needs to begin by using combinations of stimuli that are least likely to cause a fearful reaction.




Always begin with the characteristics or dimensions that are least likely to elicit the problem behavior.
At these sub-threshold intensities, the stimulus must be paired with something positive for your dog. The aim is to let the dog come to associate good things happening rather than bad things. The reinforcement must be powerful. Good choices are food, especially favored treats, toys, petting, attention, or praise. If food is used it should be in very small pieces and be highly desired by your pet (cheese, hot dogs, or canned tuna often work well).

An often asked question is for how long they need to repeat each intensity level. The answer will depend on your dog, who should be demonstrating that he is indeed expecting good things to happen. This should be in contrast to his previous reactions such as trembling, tensing up, or other fearful or aggressive responses.
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An example might be accomplished by pairing the sight, sounds and approach of a new person or dog with one of the dog’s favored rewards to change the emotional state to one that is calm and positive.

The starting point would be a distance significantly greater than 6 feet, and have the distraction (favorite treat or toy, at the ready) available before the person or dog enters the scene. Wait for the dog or person to walk by, and with dog on lead, slowly follow behind 6 to 10 feet with no contact, nor getting closer. Do this several times in a couple of days and reward the dog for being calm. Slowly after a couple days, follow a little closer, then turn the dog and let the strange dog follow your dog at the 6 to 10 feet distance, until that causes no reaction. For some dogs this may take a few times, for others months, be patient and do not rush.

Another example:  Dogs that are anxious or fearful when exposed to a visitor or cat in the home, we would want to pair the dogs favored rewards with the presence of the visitor or cat.

Reasons for method failure:  If you progress too fast, the incremental steps were too big or highly motivating rewards were not used. Another reason for failure, if your responses are not consistent, causing the dog to become confused.


Counter conditioning and desensitization take time and must be done very gradually.

092a Beth Scott

 Who is training who?

Photos: Lynanne Troy Graham_Jazzy
               Debbie Foltz-Jerauld_ Poppie
               Kay Horton Parmenter_Lola
               Beth Scott Boston

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Ethologists, are persons who study animal behavior

Edited by:  Jan Mitchell