Desensitization and Counterconditioning
Guidelines for Your DSCC Plan
- Use treats that your pet values highly—treats that smell and taste wonderful. Ideally, this high-value treat should be something your pet has never tasted before. It could be croutons, cheese or chicken. Reserve this special treat for use only in your DSCC treatment plan.
- In brief, your sessions involve: 1) bringing the feared thing into sight, 2) treating your pet in a steady stream of pea-sized morsels as long as it’s in sight, 3) then moving it out of sight (or moving you and your pet away), and 4) stopping the treats as soon as the feared thing is out of sight. Repeat this pattern of approaching and treating, then withdrawing and stopping treats at least 10 times each session.
- Try to end each session on success—when you notice that your pet is more relaxed, isn’t at all worried, and has stopped even noticing the feared thing.
- Start each session at the same level of exposure that you ended on in your last session. You might find that he’s back to being alert and a little worried about the feared thing. That’s okay. Just keep repeating the gentle exposures with treats. Stay at that level as long as it takes for your pet to handle that level well—meaning he’s unworried and relaxed. This may take many sessions across several days or weeks.
- Move on to the next exposure level on your list only when at the start of a session your ct or dog shows no worry and is relaxed and enjoying getting treats and playing with you in the presence of the thing. In a nutshell, don’t start a new session at an exposure level that’s higher than the last session.
- AVOID frightening your pet. Expose him to a tolerable version of the feared thing, without evoking any fear. If he shows fear, quickly increase the distance from the feared thing or otherwise reduce its intensity by reducing some part of it, such as its sound or movement.
- AVOID exposure to the scary thing between your treatment sessions. Ideally, your pet should not experience the thing at all except during treatment, when the exposure is controlled and you’re actively counterconditioning with treats.
- Try to have longer rather than shorter sessions, like 10 minutes or longer.
- Vary the time of day of your sessions, the location of your sessions if possible, and the kind of treats you use. Avoid carrying your treats in a special bag, or, if you need to use a treat bag, carry that bag with you around the house sometimes, even when you aren’t in a treatment session, and don’t give any treats. This will help your pet learn the right association: that the feared thing predicts treats not that the appearance of the treat bag predicts treats.
- Once your dog or cat has overcome his fear and is comfortable with the normal version of the once-feared thing, do maintenance sessions at least twice a month to prevent the fear from returning.
Seek the Help of an Experienced Professional
If your dog or cat suffers from fear, anxiety, phobia or aggression, consult with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). These experts can help you develop a DSCC treatment plan, guide you through the steps at the right pace, and troubleshoot plateaus or setbacks. Often, medication can help pets during the initial stages of systematic desensitization and counterconditioning. For advice on suitable medications, speak with a veterinary behaviorist or a CAAB, who can work with your veterinarian. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate an applied animal behaviorist in your area.