Reducing Fear and Stress with Desensitization and Counterconditioning

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

For a more complete description of behavior modification, desensitization, counterconditioning, and response substitution, see handout “Introduction to Desensitization and Counterconditioning”.

What are desensitization and counterconditioning?

Desensitization is a behavior modification technique in which you purposely and gradually expose your pet to a stimulus that has triggered a fear response. The stimulus is always controlled, starting at a very low level, so that your pet does not experience fear or display signs of stress. Over several sessions, you gradually increase the intensity of the stimulus, as long as there is no sign of fear.

Counterconditioning is a behavior modification technique in which you pair something that causes a negative emotional response with something known to create a positive emotional response in your pet. Tasty food treats are commonly used to create a positive emotional state. Favored rewards are paired with each exposure to the negative stimulus, such that the feared person, pet, noise, or situation predicts delicious treats or a favorite toy.

Desensitization and counterconditioning are often used together when treating fearful pets.

What is response substitution?

Response substitution means replacing an unwanted behavior with a desirable one. For example, sitting instead of jumping up, or going to a dog bed instead of barking at the mailman through a window. Response substitution works best if your pet is not highly aroused or distressed—frightened animals do not easily learn new skills.

"Pets may become frustrated if they are repeatedly corrected for unwanted behaviors without understanding what response would be better."

Training should focus on teaching and rewarding an appropriate behavior rather than on trying to stop or punish an inappropriate or undesirable behavior. Punishment can increase stress and make fear worse. Also, pets may become frustrated if they are repeatedly corrected for unwanted behaviors without understanding what response would be better.

In order to use response substitution, you must first use positive reinforcement to train the substitute behavior (e.g., sit or lie down) in the absence of distractions or stress. Once your pet responds consistently, you can practice in a variety of non-stressful environments and locations until you are certain your pet is ready to respond in the actual context. In the trigger context, be sure to have very high-value treats.

What are some ways to control the intensity of a stimulus?

  1. Manage the distance from the trigger, beginning far away and gradually getting closer.
  2. If the trigger is a noise, adjust the volume, going from low to high.
  3. If the trigger is a moving object, such as a bicycle, change the speed at which it moves, working from slow to fast.
  4. Break the trigger up into components: Some triggers are composed of multiple parts, such as sound, motion, sight, and smell. For example, if your pet is afraid of the vacuum cleaner, begin with the vacuum turned off and stationary. Next, turn on the sound while the vacuum is far away. Next, add movement while the vacuum is far away.

For desensitization and counterconditioning programs to be successful, it is necessary to have good, safe control of the pet, a strongly motivating reward, good control over the stimulus, and a well-constructed desensitization gradient. For dogs, a leash and secure body harness is often the best way of ensuring safe control for exposure exercises. Two points of contact may be needed, sometimes including a head halter if the dog is sufficiently powerful that the owner can’t safely hold them (see handouts “Head Halter Training for Dogs” and “Collar and Harness Options for Dogs”).

While it is important to keep your pet’s triggers controlled and below their threshold of fear or stress, your feelings are also important! If the presence of the trigger is stressful for you, stay within your comfort level as well. If you are relaxed, you can think more clearly and make better training decisions. Never feel obligated to move more quickly than you are comfortable, even if the animal seems comfortable.

Where can desensitization and counterconditioning be used?

Desensitization and counterconditioning can be used In any situation where your pet is fearful or anxious. These techniques get your pet accustomed to the stimulus by gradually increasing its intensity and pairing each exposure with a favored reward. Whether your pet is fearful of noises, flooring, steps, situations, or handling (e.g., grooming, brushing, hugging, lifting), desensitization and counterconditioning can change the fearful or anxious mood into a positive one.

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