The Real Story Behind Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Behavior and training professionals throw around the words "desensitization and counterconditioning" a lot. Almost to the point where they have lost their meaning. Many uneducated, rushed, or overwhelmed professionals will stick this label on training that is anything but. Namely neutral exposure and learned helplessness. So let's clear the air on this catch-all behavior modification term and get you started on a protocol that will actually help your primitive dog feel better.


Exposure alone isn't good desensitization. The word desensitization means to remove sensitivity. When you react to something, you are sensitized to it. That can be a happy or unhappy reaction, but regardless it is usually a visible reaction. So simple exposure alone has to be so minute or so far away, that you are aware of the emotion causing thing, but don't care much about it. Because how much you care matters! If you are already reacting to the presence of the thing you care about (good or bad), you are not desensitizing, but in fact, further sensitizing. 

Neutral exposure isn't going to get you very far very fast.

Neutral exposure isn't going to get you very far very fast.

Now the tricky part is finding that sweet spot of exposure with an animal that might not be clear in communicating how they feel until they are exploding. To do this we have to look for tiny signals like lip licking, side glances, or body positions to find an exposure level that is actually going to be desensitizing. The problem is that real life isn't usually that accommodating, so we have to stack the deck in our favor.

Food Matters

Using food can significantly improve and speed up desensitization. It also aids in the counterconditioning portion of the training. That is because food, especially meat and dairy has a positive effect on the brain, sending off happy chemicals when it is consumed. So by pairing food as a relatively calm exposure distance to a trigger, we can change our dog's emotional association. And as an added bonus, since we are delivering the food, we usually also automatically end up with an attention behavior because as the dog becomes calm and desensitized, they realized there is a cause and effect to being around the trigger and will expectantly orient to you for the food.

Let's Get Started! - Desensitization of exciting and emotionally arousing stimul

To quote the amazing Kathy Sado "what is your meat delivery system?"
Have your meat or dairy rewards cut into tiny pencil erasure size pieces. Then set up a situation where your dog can observe a trigger in a controlled space with a great enough distance that they can look briefly without reacting. When they glance, place a piece of food into their mouth. Then repeat for every glance. Your dog should give passive attention to the trigger without growling, lunging or barking. They can glance, stare, or whine but should not react with greater interest. A couple of barks is okay as long as the barking pauses before delivering the food.  After 10-15 repetitions move your dog away and give them a break. 

Be quick and generous with your food.

Be quick and generous with your food.

Desensitization should look like nothing is happening. The calmer and more boring the better. If your dog begins to lunge towards a trigger or bark uncontrollably, move to a distance where this stops and give them a 10-minute break to sniff and relax. Then restart the exercise.

Desensitization of Noises

Sound desensitization isn't that different. Start with either the Sound Proof Puppy Training App for iPhone and Android, or your normal everyday noises that set your dog off. If using the app, start with the volume at 2-3. If using common home noises like the doorbell, start in the furthest room of your house or even outside. Play the noise and watch your dog’s reaction. If they bark wait until they calm down and then feed them. If they react again, move away to a further distance. If they are curiously listening, food them immediately. If your dog wants to move away from the sound, always let them. In a case where your dog wants to get away, make the sound quieter, further away or behind a door. Practice until your dog is calmer and expectant of food.

Don't Get Greedy

Don't practice for too long. Give your dog lots of breaks. We are working on their emotions here and that's exhausting. Never rely on praise. You can praise your dog during the exercise but never practice without food. Praise will not help your dog calm down and may even poison praise so that they feel more stressed when they hear it. If your dog is calm and attentive to you, you can move a little closer to the trigger but not to a distance where they react. Just move 2-3 feet if that. Take your time. If you rush it, you can seriously ruin your training.

Don't get too close to trigger or let them get too close to you.

Don't get too close to trigger or let them get too close to you.

Use it everywhere!

This technique works in cars, with things on the tv, watching children at a playground, watching prey, etc. Tell us how you are using this technique in the Facebook Community!