15 Apr 2020

Desensitization / counter-conditioning

Different dogs have very different temperaments and react to various things differently. Some of them may be afraid of thunder or big trucks, some are afraid to be alone or being confined. While dogs that are shy tend to run away or escape from such situations, naturally confident dogs tend to stay and “fight” it off, which of course help them to recover much faster from new and fearful experiences.

For most behavior problems, especially those associated with fear or anxiety, the use of punishment is not advisable, even if it suppresses the undesirable behavior, it may further aggravate the dog’s fear and anxiety without teaching your dog anything new. Training must focus on getting the desired response and a positive mood, rather than trying to stop the undesired responses. Desensitization and counter-conditioning are one of the many powerful ways in which you may train to change your dog’s behavior.



Desensitization works by providing a means of safe gradual exposure of your dog (s) to the stimulus at a level below which their fear is likely to show. As they experience the stimulus but does not respond in the undesirable way, your dog becomes “less reactive” to the stimulus and can soon tolerate a somewhat more intense stimulus without exhibiting the undesirable response.

The key to effective desensitization is to first find the threshold at which your dog first responds by designing a stimulus gradient (from low responses to high responses). This is so that the dog can be gradually exposed to progressively more intense levels of the stimulus without evoking any undesirable behavior. It is important to have patience as we do not want to surpass the threshold too quickly and cause your dog to lose control. Having lose control frequently will not only set back the desensitization process, it will also make the dog mistrust the handler and become more reactive.


While desensitization strives to achieve a neutral response to the stimulus, the goal of counter-conditioning is to change the emotion response to the stimulus, it emphasizes on attaining positive responses. Usually when we use the term “counter-conditioning”, we refer to classical counter-conditioning. With classical counter-conditioning, we condition a new association, it can be accomplished by pairing the sight, sound and approach of the stimulus with one of the dog’s favored rewards to change the emotional state to one that is calm and positive. Usually we combine the use of counter-conditioning together with desensitization to attain a more effective training.

As long as the dog can be taught to display a new acceptable response instead of the undesirable response when exposed to a stimulus, it does not matter what techniques you have applied, desensitization, counter-conditioning or both. Again, instead of trying to overcome an intense response, the training should be set up to expose the pet with stimuli of gradually increasing intensity to ensure a successful outcome. Desensitization and counter-conditioning are complex and can be tricky to carry out. Because treatment must progress and change according to the dog’s reactions, and because these reactions can be difficult to read and interpret, you need to carefully alter the conditions such that your dog is able to remain relaxed and comfortable in the presence of their trigger(s). It is strongly recommended that you seek the help of a professional trainer severe cases. Alternatively, you may speak to our staff today through email or whatsapp us at 8877 8388 / 8444 8388 from 9am – 6am daily.

On a side note, young dogs are usually more open to new experiences and bounce back more quickly. That is why it is advisable to socialize your puppies to many new positive experiences at a younger age, such that they grow up to be confident and balanced adult dog.