Desensitization and Counter Conditioning: Keys to Success

This is a very easy to understand write up on how to conduct a desensitization and counter conditioning protocol.

https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/virtual-pet-behaviorist/dog-behavior/desensitization-and-counterconditioning

Their recommendations of finding a professional to work with are also very good (if you’re in the USA). This is money well spent. A sound investment. Make sure that the professional uses reward-based methods, no coercion, and practices desensitization and counter conditioning. Asking to sit in on a session or class, without your dog, can be helpful to find out how they work with animals.

D&CC (desensitization and counter conditioning) is so great because you don’t just stop the undesirable behaviors, you address and mitigate the underlying cause of them, the dog’s emotional state. This is important, anything else would just be a bandaid on a festering wound.

It’s a tried and tested, proven method for modifying behavior. It’s also very humane because when properly executed, the animal shouldn’t be stressed.

And you can use a D&CC protocol for more than just fear. You can use it for aggression, over excitement, and the list just goes on.

My personal tips and tricks (*some* of these are my own personal practices, not set in stone or preferred by every animal behavior professional):

-Make sure that the predictor of the positive outcome is very clear. You don’t want to have a false predictor. Make sure that going to the fridge to grab treats, reaching into your treat pouch, or other false predictors don’t occur. PLAN AHEAD. (You may want to stash treats around the house or randomly wear your treat pouch around the house so your dog eventually stops noticing it.)

-PLAN AHEAD. You want controlled exercises where as many variables as possible are under your control. Don’t try to work with your dog on nail clipping (for example) when people are walking around and distracting or exciting your dog. Don’t work on your dog’s on leash reactivity when your neighborhood is at it’s busiest and dogs are popping up around corners. Unpredictability isn’t in your favor.

-I prefer starting with the level of exposure (to what the dog fears) where the dog is noticing it, but still at emotional neutrality. This isn’t always possible but it makes tipping their emotional state towards the positive easier since you don’t first have to overcome any fear.

-Become familiar with dog body language. Google this (look for reputable sources), and also study your dog as well. This will allow you to prevent pushing your dog too far, too fast and to get an idea of how they may be perceiving your efforts.

-Don’t lure your dog closer to what they fear than they’re comfortable with. This is why the tiniest baby steps are so helpful. Each change is so tiny, there are no leaps and bounds.

If your dog acts fearful, you need to abandon the current step and go back a step or two and work your way back up to where you were. If this doesn’t help, you’ll need to break down your steps further. Breaking your steps down as much as possible (writing them out is helpful, I find) can be the key to success.

-Consider if there’s a behavior that would be helpful for your pet to learn (with positive reinforcement) during this D&CC process. Teaching your dog to rest their paw in your hand for nail clipping may be a good idea. For on leash reactivity, asking for eye contact after they’ve seen a dog/person can be helpful. Teaching a chin rest in your palm can make giving eye drops easier.

-If your dog fears people, YOU can and should be the one to be giving treats to the dog. Not the person they fear. Or you risk luring them closer than they’re comfortable with. This can create a fight response.

-I like short and frequent sessions, while the article recommends longer sessions. You don’t have to reach the end goal during one session, go at your dog’s pace. Slow and steady is better than fast. The article also recommends starting where you left off last time, but I prefer to start again at the beginning to further strengthen what we’ve already accomplished.

Do what works best for your dog.

-FINISH YOUR PROTOCOL. If you don’t *eventually* finish your protocol, you haven’t effected full emotional change so back sliding is possible.

-After you’ve finished your protocol, it’s helpful to do review sessions every once in a while. Especially if the trigger (what they used to fear) isn’t something encountered often.

Feel free to print this out or save it.

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