What is Counterconditioning and Desensitization?


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Whether your goal is to help your dog overcome the scariness of vacuums, or you want your cat to feel better about the loud sounds that accompany most holiday activities, counterconditioning combined with desensitization and positive reinforcement goes a long way in helping your pet to build confidence and feel better about the human world.

What Is Classical Conditioning?

Whenever you see the word conditioning, think “learning.” Our animals learn by association and through interaction with their environment.

Classical conditioning (or respondent conditioning), simply put, happens when two things are repeatedly paired together to create a new response (behavior) or association. The learner, in this case your pet, learns to associate one thing with the other. One of those things already has meaning and natural value (like food) and the other is totally neutral.

Classical conditioning occurs naturally, or involuntarily. For example, when your dog learns that the sound of your keys jingling means they might go for a ride or that the sound of the refrigerator opening might mean an opportunity for a quick snack. Building an association between a marker and a reinforcer, like the sound of a clicker and the delivery of treats (reinforcers), is a really common and very helpful example of how we can use classical conditioning to teach our animals all sorts of things.

What is Counterconditioning and Desensitization?

Counterconditioning, on the other hand, is the process of replacing a feeling and response (behavior) that was learned through conditioning. We can help our pets to have a new emotional response to something that caused them to feel stressed or scared previously, but we need to be able to recognize when our pets are feeling fear or experiencing stress or anxiety, so that we can identify what we can change and how. Recognizing the subtle signs of a dog or cat that is stressed, and when and why (context), is critical to being able to use counterconditioning and desensitization effectively.

Say your dog is afraid of new dogs they see on walks around your neighborhood. If we want to teach them to feel better about other dogs, every time they see another dog on a walk, you would give them their absolute favorite reinforcer. Food (like treats) is often the best reinforcer for this because it is easy to give and our animals want it in lots contexts (just like me!). If they eat the food and it tastes good and makes them feel better, and you do this every time they see other dogs, eventually your dog will learn that seeing other dogs during walkies predicts awesome nummies.

With repeated pairings of favorite reinforcers and new dogs, your dog will begin to have a different emotional response to the sight of new dogs: Now new dogs make your dog feel happy and excited instead of scared. Of course, this really only applies to other dogs on walks and seeing them. Being near them and interacting with them is a whole new ball game. If your dog is also scared of new dogs in other contexts, like say at the dog park or in puppy class, you will need to apply these same practices in those situations, too. And sometimes the most practical choice is to just use good management; if our dog is afraid of strange dogs then instead of walking past lots of dogs at the park we take a new route home and avoid the park altogether.

Counterconditioning is used alongside desensitization and you will often see animal professionals refer to them as “CC & DS.” Zazie Todd, PhD, of Companion Animal Psychology, says, “Desensitization means very gradual exposure to the scary thing, starting at a very low level and building up very slowly. It should be systematic, which means you have a plan to build up gradually. At every step of the way, your dog should be happy and comfortable.”

Systematic desensitization requires a lot of thoughtful planning and preparation. Think of it like baby steps, working at the level your pet is always capable and enabling them to make choices that keep them calm along the way. Your goal is that your pet experiences tiny bits of the scary thing, in a safe environment, while they still feel emotionally secure and then gradually work their way up to more exposure. Go too far or too fast and you wind up flooding your pet, which is extremely uncomfortable, scary, and only makes matters much worse.

The 4th of July and New Year’s Eve holidays present a big opportunity to use desensitization. “Suppose your dog is afraid of fireworks. You find a recording of firework sounds. You can’t start by playing the sounds at anywhere near normal volume, because you already know that frightens your dog. Instead, you start at a really low volume—maybe even barely audible. Then gradually over time, always making sure your dog is comfortable, you keep turning up the volume a notch. Then another notch. And so on. Over time, assuming you get it right, your dog will learn to tolerate the sounds,” Todd says.

3 Tips on Using Counterconditioning and Desensitization With Your Pet

1. Timing is everything!

In the example of a dog that is scared of seeing other dogs on walks: If you deliver the awesome treat too late, and your dog is now feeling scared at the sight of the strange dog, the treat may not be enough to help them. If you are too early in giving the treat and you give it before your dog even sees the other dog, then the treat doesn’t get associated with the presence of the other dog.

2. Choosing the right reinforcer is crucial for success.

For instance, you won’t change how your dog feels about other dogs if you give them just regular ol’ kibble pieces right after they have eaten dinner. In that scenario, the kibble is probably pretty boring in comparison to getting upset over other dogs, plus your dog’s belly might already be full. You need to be flexible and willing to choose the right treats or thing that is most reinforcing to your individual pet. Foods like cheese, pieces of lunch meat, hot dog bits, and even liver or tripe can be great options for dogs but you might find your dog also wants space or more distance (between them and the scary thing), too. Cats often love canned cat food or lickable treat sticks but also want alone time or to not be touched. Reinforcers are determined by the learner and can change depending on the context.

3. You have to be consistent.

To change how your pet feels about scary things you must give those amazing reinforcers every single time the scary thing occurs. You can’t just do it randomly and expect them to feel differently in a day or two. It … takes … tiiiiime. It’s for these reasons that if you have a pet who is experiencing some serious behavioral concerns that you work with a certified professional animal trainer, certified animal behavior consultant, or veterinary behaviorist that can assist you throughout the process, ensuring success.

Whether you’re hoping to help your scared dog feel more confident or you want your cat to grow into a happy, stress-free feline, counterconditioning and desensitization are powerful learning tools. Combined with positive reinforcement, you can help your pet to grow and learn, happily, alongside you.

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