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A Simple Way to Explain Counterconditioning & Desensitization

Updated: Jan 15

You have heard behaviorists use these terms before when it comes to dog training. So, what do they mean?

These two definitions may be some of the most important concepts in dog training!

Most dogs who show reactivity or display aggression do this because of an emotional response. That emotion may be fear, anxiety, or possibly frustration. These emotions are typically connected to a trigger, like other dogs they see on walks, people, cars, etc.

Simply put, this means that in order to remove those unwanted behaviors, we have to change the way the dog feels about the trigger.

Changing the dog's emotional response to a trigger is known as a process called Counterconditioning and Desensitization.

What is Counterconditioning?

Counterconditioning in dog training is defined as the process of changing a dog's emotional response to a specific stimulus.

In training terms, this tends to revolve around turning the dog's negative feelings into a positive/neutral one.

What is Desensitization?

Desensitization involves gradually exposing your dog to a feared or triggering stimulus in a controlled and systematic manner. In simpler terms, we are exposing your dog to the trigger at a very low level.

It's important to note that the level of exposure should be low enough to have the dog not be showing any emotional reaction. Paired with positive reinforcement, you are now encouraging the dog to be in the presence of a trigger, and to not show the undesirable behavior. This creates a tolerance to the otherwise negative trigger.

You would practice this process a little at a time until you can calmly walk your dog by/near the trigger without a reaction!

Response Substitution

Response substitution is the process of redirecting the dog to perform a desired behavior instead of a negative one. Once the dog stops the undesirable behavior and begins showing the behavior you wanted, you positively reinforce that.

Example: Dog begins barking on the leash, you use a treat to ask your dog to sit. The dog stops barking, then you give the treat and praise. If the dog keeps trying to react, you back further away, and try to ask your dog to sit again. Once dog stops barking, you again, treat and praise.

In case you're wondering "Would this mean I'm technically treating for the barking?" the answer is actually super simple!

You are treating your dog at the moment they stop barking and they sit. This over time will further your dog's motivation to stop barking and sit for you more.

BUT, the key here is learning to eventually get ahead of the reaction, and get your dog to perform the response substitution BEFORE the reaction begins.

If you're only ever redirecting your dog once the reaction begins, it means you are consistently over threshold and need to work with less intense triggers.

These behavioral concepts are KEY to fixing emotional issues that rise with your dog, and with enough consistency, repetition, and positivity, change is possible!


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