Successful Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Alligator ellipticalI have an elliptical training machine in my back room. I’ve had it for three years. Zani loves that room because that’s where the kibble, some human food, and other interesting things are stored.

But when I get on the elliptical to exercise, she’s outta there. It doesn’t really have alligator jaws attached to it, but I think that’s a good portrayal of the way Zani used to see it.

For those who aren’t familiar with these exercise machines, here is a video of an elliptical in motion. It is similar to mine. You can see where a sensitive dog could be alarmed with the motion.

I have mats in that room for dogs to hang out on, and Summer and Clara stay on their mats and get the occasional treat while I exercise. Cricket did so too in her day. But not Zani, until now.

The other day I realized I could probably help Zani get over her fears. It took all of 5 days, and I did it while I was exercising.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

The techniques of desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) are often used together to help animals, including humans, recover from fears. They are not bandaid solutions that mask the symptoms. When done correctly, they change the animal’s emotional response.

Systematic desensitization is a procedure in which learned fear of a neutral stimulus is extinguished by exposing the animal to the stimulus so gradually that involuntary fear responses are never triggered. –Standard definition, as worded by Susan Friedman in her professional LLA course

This is the technique where you start with the thing the animal is scared of (the stimulus) at a distance or intensity where the thing is not scary.  When the animal is OK with that, you gradually bring it closer or intensify it. Dr. Friedman points out that desensitization can only get the animal from scary to neutral. It doesn’t make the animal delighted or happy with the stimulus. But it can get the animal OK with it.

With counterconditioning, the animal’s respondent behavior to a stimulus is replaced with an opposite automatic response.–Standard definition, as worded by Susan Friedman in her professional LLA course

OK, counterconditioning is the frosting on the cake. Counterconditioning is the technique that can actually replace fear or another undesirable response with a positive emotional response. This is done by associating the scary stimulus with something wonderful, while the animal is under threshold, consistently over time.

Here is an article that defines the terms desensitization and counterconditioning and lays out how to design a training protocol.

And here is a later article by me that outlines the steps of using DS/CC to help Zani love the sound of Velcro.

Zani’s DS/CC Story

…is very short.

Starting point: Typically when I would get on the elliptical, she would leave and go into the bedroom across the hall. She often went out of sight and got on the bed. That was her comfortable distance from the elliptical, so that’s where we started.

Picture 1: Since I was tossing treats to the other dogs anyway, I started tossing some into that bedroom (bank shot!). She learned to hang out by that doorway and get the treats. She could be out of sight of the elliptical if she chose. Distance: 16–19 feet.

Pictures 2a and 2b: Soon she started waiting in the hallway instead of in the doorway to the bedroom, so I started aiming the treats into the hall. I could tell she was comfortable because she didn’t retreat to the bedroom anymore or show any signs of concern, just happily chased down the treats. Distance: 12.5–16 feet.

Picture 3: All my dogs are trained to get on mats. The mats have good associations with relaxation and treats. So I threw a mat down in the area where Zani was already comfortable. She immediately got on it and stayed there happily when I got on the elliptical and started tossing treats. This was a big step because previously she had been on her feet and moving. If she had had any residual fear, she was free to trot away farther. Staying still in the presence of the elliptical was a big step. Hence, I didn’t cue her to get on the mat. I gave her the choice. I would have tossed treats either way. But she immediately plopped down on the mat and stayed there.

Technically this was a switch to the technique of Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior, or DRI, from counterconditioning, since Zani was now also being reinforced for getting on her mat. However, as I mention below, operant and respondent behaviors can be all knotted up at times. Distance 12.5 feet.

Picture 4: Over two more days I moved the mat closer. I could tell that Zani was fine with that because her body language was comfortable, and she always got on the very front of the mat. Final distance: 10.5 feet.

That’s it! She can now participate in the “Eileen exercises and dogs lie on their mats and get treats” event. She is within my treat throwing range and she is completely comfortable. I don’t want any of the dogs closer than the current “front row” while I’m exercising since the moving parts of the elliptical could be dangerous for them. Since Zani generally likes a front-row seat, it will be interesting to see if she moves up to try to join or displace another dog. I’m betting she will. I may have to train her to stay back from the elliptical!

Here is a slide show of the steps we took.

I apologize for the poor photos. I wanted to show my view from the elliptical, and the actual distances involved. The light (and the clutter in the room) was not conducive to that. Pictures 1, 2a, 2b, and 3 are reconstructions by the way. I didn’t take photos during the process.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Slow Techniques?

To review: the desensitization part was moving Zani gradually closer to the doorway of the back room while the elliptical was in motion. The counterconditioning part was the yummy treats that accompanied the process. DRI came into play when Zani started settling on the mat. It worked because I didn’t rush. I watched Zani to be sure she wasn’t scared and just venturing forth to get the treats, then retreating to safety again. She had to feel safe with every step.

Desensitization and counterconditioning are often said to be slow. They can be. Depending on the history and intensity of the adverse reaction, the attractiveness of the counterconditioning item (usually really good food or fun play), correct timing, and the skill of the trainer, these techniques can take a while.

But guess what? Not always. I was frankly amazed at how fast Zani got over her mistrust of the elliptical, and felt bad that I hadn’t tried to help her in any systematic way before.

Even when these techniques take time, they are always my choice, along with operant learning using positive reinforcement**,  for helping an animal overcome its fears. They are completely humane, and science has supported for decades that they create a true emotional response in an animal. I am privileged to watch my formerly feral dog Clara, under the care of a skilled trainer, blossoming into a comfortable, sociable dog, using these methods.

By the way, the treats I use for the elliptical mat game are pieces of Prairie kibble (which is small) and the undersized leftover pieces from when I cut up Natural Balance rolls. My dogs don’t typically need much encouragement to hang out on mats, and since I am throwing the treats while in motion, I don’t want to cause a scuffle if I were to toss something high value right between two dogs. But if I had planned better I would have used something higher value during Zani’s rehabilitation. The animal’s ultimate conditioned response can only be as positive as its response to that particular item, so one usually uses something really spectacular.  Luckily it turned out I didn’t need to. But perhaps to cap things off I’ll surprise them all with a piece of liverwurst (hand-delivered) now and then.

Do you have any great DS/CC success stories?

Related Posts

** Operant learning played a role in this protocol as well. Once the good feelings associated with the unconditioned stimulus start spreading to the previously feared items, the animal will often on its own develop behaviors to hasten its access to the goodies. In this instance, Zani performed the operant behaviors of chasing treats and lying on her mat. Both of these are familiar, comfortable, and pleasant for her. Sometimes just having a job to do is a great help. On the other hand, the mat itself has already been classically conditioned as a very nice place to be.

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

30 thoughts on “Successful Desensitization and Counterconditioning

  1. This was so interesting! And great! It’s a shame that everybody can’t realize that’s it’s not so difficult to teach a dog not to react to certain things. There’s a dog across the street…

  2. Thanks for a great article. My problem is that my dog, a 75 lb ridgeback mix, becomes hostile in the presence of cyclists, especially if they’re moving quickly. A couple of people ambling along a bike path slowly might merit a couple of barks: someone moving at speed often provokes him to lunging and displays of aggression.

    This has gotten to be a problem for me recently because our usual walking route has just been converted into a (quite lovely) multi-use path, and is attracting more and more cyclists. Any advice on how to acclimate him a bit better so that he’s not so aggressive around cyclists?

    1. Hi Uncle Fluffy, glad you liked the post.

      I’m sorry that I can’t advise you about your ridgie mix. I will mention that the same techniques described in this post are what most people do to deal with aggression and reactivity. It certainly can be done (it’s a pretty common problem). I hope you can find a local positive reinforcement-based trainer who is experienced with behavior problems to help you with this. You can check the “find a trainer” section of the Pet Professional Guild website.

      In the meantime you might want to check out the Reactive Dogs FaceBook group if you are on Facebook. Good luck and sorry I can’t help.

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  4. “Desensitization only gets you to neutral.”

    Yes, yes, yes, yes! Every once in a while, someone states something that perfectly crystallizes something that has been churning around in the murk of my brain, and this is one of those times. Many thanks for stating this so clearly. I’ve had several discussions/debates recently with people who didn’t see any point in taking the time to properly counter-condition something, when desensitization could get to the end result faster. I’ve struggled to make arguments for counter-conditioning clear and rational. I’m now going to go away and get t-shirts printed with “Desensitization only gets you to neutral!”

    1. That’s straight from a lecture by Susan Friedman. I was fuzzy on it too, until she pointed it out and had a little diagram. Bingo! Glad you liked it, Jo!

  5. “Desensitization and counterconditioning are often said to be slow” You explained well all the reasons this may be true. You also demonstrated one of my favourite catch cries (I have a lot!) “Going slow is faster in the end”. That’s exactly what you demonstrated with the distance you began at. Many would try to get their dog as close as possible as early as possible, which can often back fire. It’s a bit of a trap. I remember a colleague telling me that you can “force” dogs with treats! It’s so true. A dog will come closer to get a treat and hastily retreat to a safer distance. Nice one Eileen 🙂

    1. Thanks, Sonya! Now that you mention it, this is a good example of “slow is fast.” I need to remember to keep that mindset. I was very casual about it, and that probably meant I didn’t put any unconscious pressure on my little pressure-sensitive dog!

  6. Interesting post Eileen. I do have a question though. What to do when your dog is reactive/fearful of somthing that she shouldn’t be in one context, but should perhaps be sensitive to in a different context. My Teena can really have trouble with big eyes, staring, smiling. She will react to both people, dogs and any (animal or person) in pictures/posters etc. of big or staring eyes and smiles. She growls at my parents smiling photo on the wall, and the other night at the vets she had quite an issue with a flea prevention poster where the dog looked just too dam happy. I do want to ease her fears, but don’t think I should interfere with her ability to properly read signals from another dog. This may seem like a dumb question, but if I use the counterconditioning with her, could it interfere with her properly reading and responding to another dog? It’s the staring and the stillness (photos) that I’m concerned about.

    1. Marjorie, I thought about this, and was tempted to say I didn’t think it would carry over, since dogs discriminate so well. Especially if you did the CC only with pictures. But really, this question is out of my league. I don’t have the experience to know.

      It reminds me of Patricia McConnell’s writing about “supernormal” stimuli. Kind of relevant here.

      Sorry Marjorie, I just don’t know. Hoping someone else might chime in with experience with this.

      1. Thanks for your response Eileen. I read Patricia’s article, that too was very interesting. Reminded me of a time when I was out hiking and I took out a lovely red apple to munch on and I was seriously challenged by a humming bird for that apple! I haven’t done much of anything yet with Teena regarding this issue, except to show her that the preceived threat (poster of the toothy smiling and wide eyed boarder collie) is not real, by patting it and talking calmly to her. She was not completely convinced and then when the vet opened the door and that thing on the back of the door moved…well that was it.

        1. Oh, too bad about the door moving. That was unfortunate, wasn’t it! I have a friend who used to have a tee shirt with a slightly larger than life picture of a labrador that looked like it was looking at you. It disturbed a lot of animals (and a few of her tennis opponents if I recall!)

  7. You wrote “Differential Reinforcement of a Compatible Behavior, or DRI” ??? James O’Heare writes that DRI is the Differential Reinforcement of and INcompatible Behavior. See also AABP Glossary:
    “Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors (DRI). A differential reinforcement procedure in which a target behavior that is incompatible or mutually exclusive to the undesirable behavior is reinforced while another target behavior is extinguished.”
    Reinforcement is provided for one behavior that is incompatible with another behavior.

    So what is then the undesirable behavior and why is going onto the mat incompatible with it? Is it leaving the room? Why would you want to prohibit your dog from leaving the room? Even if she is no longer fearful of the machine?

    1. Thank you VERY much for catching my typo. A very bad one.

      There are an infinite number of incompatible behaviors with staying on a mat, of course. The one I had in mind is coming too close to the moving elliptical machine for safety reasons. She is completely free to leave the room. Perhaps I’ll clarify that at a later time. My point was that when a contingency is added, no matter how mild, we are no longer dealing with pure classical conditioning. Perhaps I should have said plain R+, since the behavior is not replacing a former problematic behavior, but the next likely one now that her fear is gone. However, the purpose of getting on a mat is almost always DRI, at least in my house.

      My dogs and I have a deal that they are familiar with. We have an “if you are in this room/area with me, you need to be on a mat, and I will pay you for it” contingency. This is generally for reasons of immediate safety (kitchen or exercise room) or controlling chaos (back door area). Mat behavior is a differentially reinforced incompatible behavior for coming too close to the oven, approaching the elliptical, and knocking into other dogs at the back door, and many such things. In all of these situations where mat behavior is situationally (as opposed to verbally) cued, my dogs are free to get off the mat and leave the room, and all of them do on occasion, for different situations and reasons. They do it most typically when they choose a cushy bed elsewhere over hanging out on a mat for whatever treat I am doling out.

      Thanks again for alerting me to the typo. Can’t believe that no one has noticed or said anything before now.

  8. Eileen, I’m still working on desensitizing my horse to ride in a trailer. I’m blogging that at

    However, there are a great number of pieces to work on for the counter-conditioning. I started in December, 2012. But have take a substantial amount of time off so I’m still working on it. 🙂

    1. Laurie! That’s wonderful! I just had the best time cruising around in your blog. I love the time and care you are putting into this for Atticus. Thanks for telling me about it. Following!

  9. Hi Eileen! My doxie Sam sounds a lot like Summer in terms of the reactive barking to noises, people, etc. He’ll bark when he sees someone walking across the street too (from out the window). Do you have an article about how you’ve been trying to desensitize / counter condition Summer’s reactive barking? Thanks!

    1. Hi Carley! I don’t really have an article about that, although I do dole out the treats when there are truck noises. At this point Summer reacts only to the “worst” ones: mail and FedEx. But she is able to snap out of it enough to respond to me better and better. Here is an article about how I taught her to come to me instead of bothering the other dogs while they play: Summer Learns an Alternative to Being the Fun Police. And also, in case you haven’t seen it, here’s one about the benefits of window film: Don’t Look Now! The Benefits of Window Filmfor the Household with Reactive Dogs Good luck!

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