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Healthy Pets

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Desensitization and 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.

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