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Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Counterconditioning

To “condition” means to teach, and to “counter” means to change. So counterconditioning just means to re-teach the pet to have a pleasant feeling and reaction toward something that he once feared or disliked. We do this by associating the feared thing with something good so that it predicts good things for the animal. As soon as the dog or cat sees the thing, we give him a delicious treat to create a pleasant emotional reaction. Over many repetitions, the animal learns that whenever that thing appears, good things happen! Eventually, the process produces a neutral or positive emotional reaction to the sight of the previously feared or disliked person, animal, event, place or object.

Systematic Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Desensitization is often combined with counterconditioning because it’s almost impossible to teach a positive association to something if the dog is actively experiencing fear or showing aggression. So we expose the animal to a weak version of the feared or disliked thing (desensitization), and give him delicious treats (counterconditioning). Over many exposures, the thing is gradually made stronger (for example, closer, louder or faster) and always followed immediately with treats.

Steps for Your DSCC Plan

  • Write down a description of the thing or event that your dog or cat fears. Include all its major relevant attributes, such as the way it moves, sounds, looks and smells, and how far it’s away and how long it lasts. Relevant means only those attributes that seem to trigger your pet’s fear or aggression. For example, if your dog fears children on skateboards, their smell may not be relevant, but their age, noises and distance could be.
  • Now look at these attributes and identify when they’re least and most threatening to your dog. For example, your dog may be slightly tense with skateboarding children at a distance, but once they’re within 10 yards and the noise is louder, he reacts with defensively threatening behaviors like barking, lunging and snarling. Furthermore, if the child is also yelling, your dog is at his worst. Since your dog can’t tell you how much he fears something, judge by your dog’s past reactions, his body language and behavior.
  • Now make a list of these attributes, ordered from least to most threatening. For example:
    • Child on skateboard in the distance, sound muffled
    • Child on skateboard at 20 yards, wheels getting loud
    • Child on skateboard within 10 yards, wheels louder
    • Child on skateboard, close up, wheels loudest
    • Child on skateboard, yelling, close up, wheels loudest
  • Start your DSCC treatment with number 1, the least-threatening level of exposure for your dog. Other examples are if your pet fears a sound, you can expose him to controlled versions of the sound by playing tape recordings of it. Or you can expose your pet to the sight of something he fears without sound or movement. For instance, if the dog is afraid of men, keep the men far away and ask them to stand quiet and still.

WebMD Veterinary Reference from ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist

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