Desensitization and Counterconditioning for Fear

Desensitization – a process by which fear, panic or other undesirable emotional response to a given stimulus is reduced or extinguished, especially by repeated exposure to that stimulus.

Counterconditioning - conditioning intended to replace a negative response to a stimulus with a positive response.

Desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) are almost always the best plans for treating fear. They are usually used in combination, rather than one or the other in order to have the greatest chance for success. It is important to note that desensitization requires controlled exposure and at levels that will not elicit a fearful response. When you begin a DS/CC program you should consider that you are making a promise to your pet that you will do everything in your power to prevent him from every being afraid of that thing again.

Before You Start
There are a few things that you need to know before beginning a DS/CC program. You must understand what frightens your pet, your pet’s stress signals, as well as what your pet loves.

 You can’t treat fear if you don’t know what your pet is afraid of. Is it all traffic or louder vehicles such as garbage trucks and buses, for instance. Fear can be a complex emotion and there can be many associations an animal makes with what it fears. For example, a pet who is afraid of Aunt Sally could develop a fearful response to anyone wearing a similar rose-based perfume. Make a note of as many details as possible about the situation when your pet responds fearfully – location, time of day, sounds, odors, etc., in addition to the trigger and distance from the trigger.

In order to properly desensitize and countercondition your pet, you need to work below threshold – the point at which the animal demonstrates a fearful reaction. Most failures in treating fear result from the owner trying to train while the animal is over threshold. The learning center of the brain literally shuts down at this stage so behavior change is impossible to achieve. Closely observe your pet and watch for initial signs that he or she is stressed/afraid. Common early signs include tensing/stilling, change of breathing patterns, dilated pupils, and hackles raising/piloerection. Continued exposure to the trigger will generally lead to trembling, drooling, lip licking/tongue flicking, hyperpanting/increased heart rate, and avoidance and can progress to barking/hissing, growling, lunging, swatting (cats)/snapping (dogs), and biting.

You need to know what your pet loves as that will be used to create a new, positive association with whatever he currently fears. This article will refer to treats, as those are the top favorite of most pets and are easy to administer but anything that your pet adoress – playing, a scratch behind the ear, etc. – can be used in counterconditioning. However, to be most effective, this “good thing” should only be available to your pet during your treatment sessions until he is feeling more comfortable with his trigger. 
Don’t be afraid to get creative when it comes to treats. Chicken, freeze-dried shrimp, hot dogs, and cheese are commonly used treats but we’ve known dogs who work best for carrots or French toast and cats who can’t resist sour cream. You will be using very small amounts (about the size of your pinky fingernail) in order to avoid lag time as your pet eats as well as to prevent satiation and digestive upset. You can reduce your pet’s meal size if you are concerned about weight gain or loose stool due to the extra food. 

Step One
For illustration, we will give the protocol for a common fear in both dogs and cats – having nails trimmed. Have your pet’s nail clippers nearby but out of sight. Be sure to work in a space where your pet is relaxed and make yourself comfortable. Bring out the clippers, give your pet a treat, then put the clippers away. Repeat until your dog or cat is obviously comfortable when you bring out the clippers and he is looking to you for a treat. Move to step two.

Step Two
Bring out the clippers. Hold for two seconds, give your pet a treat, then put the clippers away. Repeat until your dog or cat is obviously comfortable when you bring out the clippers and he is looking to you for a treat. Move to step three.

Step Three
Bring out the clippers. Hold for four seconds, give your pet a treat, then put the clippers away. Continue to gradually increase the time you are holding the clippers before giving a treat, only adding time when your pet is repeatedly comfortable at the current time. Move to step four once you have several instances of the dog or cat being relaxed when you hold the clippers for about ten seconds. 

Step Four
Bring out the clippers and move them an inch or two toward your pet, give a treat, then put the clippers away. Repeat until your pet is comfortable and looking to you for treats. Move to step five.

Step Five
Bring out the clippers and move them three or four inches toward your pet, give a treat, then put the clippers away. Continue to gradually decrease the distance between the clippers and your pet. Move to step six once you can repeatedly hold the clippers an inch or two from your pet.

Step Six
Bring out the clippers and lightly touch them to your pet’s paw, give a treat, then pull the clippers back (at this point it shouldn’t be necessary to keep them out of sight after each approach). Repeatedly touch the paw with the clippers until your pet is consistently relaxed then move to step seven.

Step Seven
Pick up your pet’s paw (DS/CC to this separately if your pet doesn’t like to have his feet touched in general), lightly touch with the clippers, give a treat, then pull the clippers back. Repeat until your pet is consistently comfortable and then move to step eight.

Step Eight
Pick up your pet’s paw, put a nail in the clippers, give a treat, then pull the clippers back. Repeat until your pet is consistently comfortable and then move to step nine.

Step Nine
Pick up your pet’s paw, clip a nail, give a treat, then pull the clippers back. Depending upon how your pet is reacting, how long it has taken you to get to this step, and how comfortable you feel, clip one more nail or call it a day. Do not expect to trim the nails on all four paws on your first session at this step! It might take many more training sessions until you can do all the nails in one sitting. 

Though the details will be different, these are the general steps you will take in any DS/CC program, regardless of the trigger – introduce the “scary thing” at a great enough distance or low enough intensity that your dog or cat doesn’t show stress or fear, give his “good thing,” and then remove the scary thing. It is crucial that the trigger happens before the treat and not at the same time; the trigger needs to become a predictor of the good thing. Very gradually decrease distance or increase intensity and then eventually combine them in practice.

If your dog or cat does exhibit signs of fear or stress during the training session, you have moved ahead too quickly. Go back one or two steps and go from there. 
There is no formula to determine how long it will take to desensitize and countercondition a dog or cat to something it fears. It would be quite unusual to accomplish this in one session unless it is a new fear and/or of mild intensity.

What to Do in Uncontrolled Situations
Some triggers, like the one above, can be completely controlled by you – the clippers are in a drawer when you aren’t using them, crisis averted. Don’t forget, it is your job to go the extra mile to avoid your pet’s triggers. But sometimes the unexpected happens or it might not always be predictable when some triggers, such as traffic or men, will cross your pet’s path. Unfailingly have your pet’s “good thing” with you if there is even a chance that the trigger will appear. If it does, immediately start to dole out the good thing until the trigger is out of sight/hearing range, then remove the good stuff. Should the trigger suddenly appear at a point that is far beyond your pet’s threshold – for example, your dog is doing well with men 15 feet away but a man opens a door when you are six feet away – turn around and get distance. You can try using his good thing until the coast is clear but he might be too anxious or aroused to have any interest. Remember, once over threshold the learning center of the brain is nonoperational.  You simply need to diffuse the situation.

A desensitization and counterconditioning program can be rather detailed and complicated. Working with a private trainer, certified behavior counselor, or applied animal behaviorist can be beneficial and should not be considered a last resort, especially for long-term fears. We can provide referrals for such professionals if needed.

If you would like information from an Anti-Cruelty Behavior Specialist regarding this behavior topic, please call 312-645-8253 or email

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