Counter Conditioning and Desensitization Training – Training an Anxious Dog

If you have an anxious or fearful dog you might have tried all sorts of supplements and products to help your dog overcome their fears. And some of those products might work in a pinch, or help take the edge off a stressful situation. But the truth is – often there is no “simple” solution for dogs with anxiety. Most pills or supplements alone don’t work, and if they do work – they will require you to increase dosing over-time in order to help manage your dog’s anxiety.

This is why it is so important to work on teaching your dog to overcome their fears in a safe and controlled setting. There are two main techniques to do this – one is counter-conditioning, and the other is desensitization. In order to better explain these different forms of training, I have brought in, certified trainer – Jennifer Whiten, from “MA Dog Training” to better explain these different options and give us some examples of how they are used to help change our dogs emotional responses!

Counter Conditioning in Fearful Dogs

The technique of counter conditioning is used to replace a dog’s FEAR of a particular stimulus with a POSITIVE emotional response. This is usually done by showing the dog the stimulus, then providing a high value treat or reward while the dog is non-reactive, relaxed, and able to make good choices. 

“An example of this may be a dog who fears men. We take him to a place where he will see a man from a  safe distance (dog notices man, but does not react). After looking at him, we feed the dog the high value treats that he loves! Our goal is for the presence of the man to predict great things for the dog!“

Jennifer Whiten, CPDT-KA

The key to counter conditioning is introducing the stimulus when the dog is calm and relaxed then giving a positive reinforcer. When people first attempt counter conditioning with their dog, oftentimes  the dog is already over aroused or is too close to the stimulus to make good associations and learn new behaviors.

“I often see people trying to work through this process when their dog has already become nervous or reactive. This will not work as no learning can occur while the animal is in distress. So, making sure you’re working with the dog while he is comfortable is key. Also, make sure the dog notices the  “scary thing” before you start feeding him the wonderful food. You want the scary stimulus to predict tasty food!!! You do not want the food to predict something scary. The order is important!”

Jennifer Whiten, CPDT-KA

If you are struggling with a fear or phobia it’s possible that you will need to use multiple techniques at the same time, along with different supplements to help lower the threshold and get into a space where your pup can start to learn to overcome their fears. One additional such tool is desensitization training.

Desensitization Training in Dogs with Anxiety

The basic idea of desensitization training is that you gradually expose your dog to the “stress provoking” stimulus over time, starting at a very low level of exposure that he/she can tolerate without reacting. As the dog gets used to the weakened version of the stimulus, the stimulus can be gradually and systematically increased in intensity without the dog showing signs of fear or negative reactions.

“We are careful during this process to not increase intensity too fast as to trigger a fear response. We work at the dogs’ pace. Desensitization does not create happy, positive feelings in the dog, as a successful counter-conditioning protocol will. It basically brings the dog from worried to neutral.”

Jennifer Whiten, CPDT-KA

Oftentimes a good training plan will include both desensitization and counter conditioning training because dogs may need to be brought to a neutral state prior to attempting to use counter conditioning training (or vise versa).

According to Whiten, a great example of a Desensitization protocol might be: “You have a dog that is very worried and nervous when he hears babies crying. But you would like your friend to be able to visit with their new baby. So,for a while, you practice playing sounds through an app or cd, of a baby crying, at a very low level. The goal is to gradually increase the sound without triggering a reaction from the dog…. Your dog will eventually be able to handle your friend visiting with her baby without being worried or stressed. If your friend visits often, I would also use Counter Conditioning to pair things your dog loves when the baby comes over!”

One of the major pitfalls we see when it comes to desensitization training is forcing a pet to move too quickly past their fear/anxiety – either by having the stimulus too loud, or too close. By doing this it makes it impossible for a pet to progress and for their emotions to change in regards to the situation.

“Be careful to go slow and let your dog dictate when you can increase intensity of a stimulus or trigger. A trained eye from a professional can pick up on stress signals in your dog that an average pet person could miss. Paying attention to a dog’s body  language is extremely important.”

Jennifer Whiten, CPDT-KA

Management Strategies

Both counter-conditioning and desensitization training takes time, patience and sometimes will require you to work with a qualified trainer in order to help your pup overcome their fears. However, in some situations – you may not have the time to be able to enact these training options to get your dog to a place where they can tolerate the stimulus BEFORE exposure.

An example of this might be if your dog is dog reactive – but the current area you walk your dog is highly populated with other dogs, and you are unable to go to a different area (for whatever reason). You might instead do enrichment activities, training, and exercise drills in your home. This will avoid the stress and anxiety that comes with your night-time walk, and provide a stress-free alternative.

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“If you find you don’t have the time to put into this process or access to professional help and your dog is struggling with fears or concerns, you can use strategic management of the dog and his environment being careful to not expose him to triggers. This may make your dog’s world smaller but keeping him stress-free is the kindest and safest thing you can do for all involved.”

Jennifer Whiten, CPDT-KA

Another great example of this might be if your dog is fearful of loud noises – it might be best to avoid areas that have loud noises (like fireworks) if you haven’t done desensitization training to that noise.

However, when using management strategies there will always be a risk of either not being able to control the environment enough OR that the situation gets out of hand. This might happen if you try to muffle the sound of fireworks by playing music. It’s possible the music will not be loud enough or the dog may become fearful of the music as well because it is also LOUD. If you believe that failure is more possible reaching towards other alternatives such as supplements or medications to help mitigate the situation might be helpful.

“Understand there is always a risk of accidental management failure. Be realistic when considering if management in your household has a high success rate or a high risk of failure.”

Jennifer Whiten, CPDT-KA

Identifying when your Dog is Stressed

The key to a successful training or management strategy is to be able to keep your dog under the threshold where they are stressed and/or fearful. Without doing so none of these methods will work, and may actually lead to the behaviors worsening over time. A qualified trainer is a great touch-stone for something like this as they have received educational training on the identification of stress in dogs, and they will be able to guide you through this process. However, it is good for any pet parent to be able to identify stress in dogs, so that they can help manage any new situations as they arise.

Signs of Stress in Dogs:

  • Wide Eyes with whites of the eye showing
  • Tucked Ears
  • Tucked Tail
  • Raised Hackles
  • Lip Licking
  • Yawning
  • Panting
  • Whining
  • Barking
  • Freezing
  • Pacing

If you notice your dog is experiencing any of these signs in a situation, instead of thinking that your dog is “fearful”, try to consider “what has happened and to cause this behavior”. This identification will allow you to adjust your strategy and the situation going forward so that you do not build on that fear.

In an ideal situation any “new” situation or item is introduced slowly to a dog, at their own pace, and without ever moving into the realm of fear. Then you can use positive reinforcement coupled with classical conditioning in order to strengthen the associate with the situation or object. However, this is not always able to occur. Sometimes things are out of our control – like your dog getting charged by another at the dog park, or an off leash dog attacking your dog while on a walk. In these cases we need to look beyond classical conditioning in order to help our pets overcome these new fears.

If you’d like to learn more about the different training methods and get some great dog tips make sure to join the conversation on Instagram, and check out Jennifer at MA Dog Training for more training advise. I hope to see you all around my Canine Health Nuts!

About the Author: Nikki is a Registered Veterinary Technician (Veterinary Nurse) and Dog Mom with over a decade of experience with dogs and cats. Since graduation from college (BS Biology, Dip. Animal Nutrition, AS Animal Science) she has adopted two mixed breed dogs – Ranger and Ash, and has focused her time learning about pet food and nutrition.

Nikki shares information on a range of dog nutrition topics: from how to create a homemade complete and balanced dog food recipes, to how to choose a dog food. Nikki strives to give dog parents the information they need in order to make the best nutrition decisions for their pup!

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