Written by Dr. Jan Driscoll – Used with permission. 

Two techniques which can be particularly useful in the modification of problem behavior in pets are called desensitization and counter conditioning. These procedures are often used in combination to eliminate inappropriate behaviors and replace them with more acceptable ones.

Desensitization and counter conditioning are based upon the principles of Pavlovian (classical) conditioning. A stimulus called the unconditioned stimulus or UCS elicits an innate response (the unconditioned response or UCR). In Pavlov’s original studies, salivation in dogs (the UCR) was elicited by food powder (the UCS) put into the dogs’ mouths.

Pavlovian conditioning occurs when a stimulus that did not originally elicit the response (the conditioned stimulus or CS) is paired with the UCS. In Pavlov’s experiments, a bell was used as the CS. After a few trials, the dogs began to salivate when the bell sounded. This response to the CS is called the conditioned response or CR.

Let’s see how this might apply to a common problem in dogs. A dog might be caught outdoors in a sudden thunderstorm. The noise of thunder, nearby lightning strikes, and cold rain (the UCSs) may frighten the dog (the UCR). If the UCS is strong, a fear response (the CR) can be conditioned in one trial to other stimuli that are present during or that precede the thunderstorm such as the darkening of the sky or the sound of wind, rain and distant thunder (the CSs).

When these stimuli occur, even though the dog is inside and safe, he or she may show symptoms of fear such as pacing, seeking hiding places, restlessly moving from one location to another, urinating or defecating, or showing destructive behavior in trying to escape from a room or enclosure.

Often we do not know how the initial conditioning took place. For example, a dog who is afraid of or aggressive toward unfamiliar people may not have been abused. A person who has a snake phobia may not have been bitten by a snake. Although it would be satisfying to know how the initial response was conditioned, it is not necessary for the use of the desensitization/counter conditioning techniques.

What is Desensitization?

In desensitization, we present the stimuli that have come to elicit the unwanted response (e.g., fear, aggression) at a low enough intensity that the conditioned response is not elicited. With humans, this is done through the creation of a stimulus hierarchy going from the least intense stimulus to the most intense.

For example, a person with a snake phobia might start by looking at a plastic toy snake, then handle the toy snake, go on to look at pictures of snakes in a book, from there to looking at a videotape of snakes, and so on, eventually ending with looking, touching and finally handling real snakes.

A dog cannot help us create a hierarchy of stimuli, so we must take our best guesses about what levels of stimuli to use and carefully monitor the animal’s behavior to be sure that the unwanted response is not elicited. Sample hierarchies for some common problems in dogs are provided later.

What is Counter Conditioning?

Counter conditioning is based on the idea that an animal or person cannot experience two incompatible emotions at the same time. For example, if you are calm and relaxed, you cannot be fearful. If you are happily playing with a ball, you cannot be aggressive, and so on. In counter-conditioning, we use stimuli that will elicit emotions and responses that are incompatible with, or counter to, the unwanted behavior.

We can then combine these incompatible emotions with the stimulus hierarchy we have developed for desensitization.

For example, suppose you have a fear of flying in airplanes. Also suppose you love to eat chocolate chip cookies. You could go to the airport and look at airplanes, taking along your bag of cookies to eat. The pleasant emotional response you have to the cookies makes it less likely that the low intensity stimulus of looking at airplanes will make you fearful of the airplanes.

This example makes an important point about desensitization and counter conditioning. If we gave you a bag of chocolate chip cookies and sent you onto an airplane which then took off, you would be too frightened to eat the cookies. The pleasant emotion of eating cookies has very little chance of countering a strong fear.

The unwanted emotion and behavior would break through or over power the incompatible emotion. Counter conditioning works best if the fear stimulus is at a low enough level that the unwanted behavior is unlikely to occur.

How Can We Apply These Techniques to Animal Behavior Problems?

Now let’s take a common behavioral problem in dogs. Suppose your dog is afraid of unfamiliar people that he meets on walks or who come to the door. When he meets unfamiliar people who try to touch him, he backs away. Sometimes when the strangers persist, he growls and bares his teeth. You are afraid he may bite someone out of fear.

Obviously your first concern is to be sure that no one is bitten by your dog. You would want to walk him in locations where he will not meet many unfamiliar people, and you will want to warn people about approaching him. You will want to control or remove him when someone comes to the door.

Let’s see how we would use desensitization and counter conditioning to help eliminate this unwanted behavior. One way to look at it is that we are going to use desensitization and counter conditioning to change your dog’s attitude about unfamiliar people. At the beginning, your dog sees strangers as dangerous and threatening.

Your efforts to control him by tugging on the leash and yelling “no” have probably made the problem worse by making him more fearful. Using the technique of desensitization, the first thing we need to do is establish a stimulus hierarchy going from the least frightening stimulus to the most frightening stimulus.

You could start by taking your dog to a location where he will see unfamiliar people passing at a distance (for example, a park or bike path). You will have your dog on a leash for control and have him in a relaxed posture, sitting or lying down. Keep your dog relaxed by talking softly to him, touching him and giving him an occasional very tasty treat.

If your dog does not become fearful or tense, the next time, you can move a little closer to the path to make the stimulus a bit stronger. After your dog tolerates unfamiliar people at a distance, you could create an actual encounter by setting up a scenario with a person your dog does not know.

Have the person approach very slowly while you keep your dog relaxed and under control. If the dog becomes fearful or tense, the person should move away. You should wait until your dog is completely relaxed and calm before you try the next encounter. If the dog tolerates the approach, the person can toss the dog a treat.

At this point, let the person make additional approaches, tossing a treat as he advances. Again, if the dog becomes tense, the person should move away until the dog is once again relaxed and happy.

You can use the same procedure to desensitize/counter condition the dog to unfamiliar people who come to your home. Use distance between the person and your dog to reduce the intensity of the stimulus.

Use tasty treats and praise to provide a calm, relaxed and friendly emotional state. It is important when people come to your house that they let the dog approach them rather the other way around. They should ignore the dog when entering and let the dog approach once they are, for example, seated in the living room.

You can imagine other scenarios that would help the dog learn that people are associated with positive experiences and not negative ones.

What are the General Rules for Applying these Techniques?

The procedures described above can be useful in dealing with many unwanted behaviors in all kinds of animals including dogs, cats, horses and birds.

The counter conditioning part will usually involve the use of treats and praise, or gentle, quiet massage or, in some cases, play to produce positive rather than negative emotions and behaviors. You need to use rewards that are very strong – very tasty treats or really fun games.

The desensitization part will vary depending upon the specific stimuli that are eliciting the unwanted behavior. The general rules follow:

(1) Start with a stimulus so low in intensity or so simple that no undesirable responses are produced. If the response is produced the first time you present the stimulus, make the stimulus less intense or less complex.

(2) Go very slowly. The most common mistake people make is to go too quickly.

(3) Constantly monitor the dog’s response for any signs of undesirable behavior.

(4) If the dog shows any signs of the undesirable behavior, go back as many steps as are required to eliminate it and start over.

(5) Make it as easy as possible for your dog to do the right thing. Arrange the training sessions so that he can learn quickly and easily.

(6) If you reach a sticking point – an intensity level that the dog cannot get past – try to find a way to break up the stimulus or make it simpler.

(7) Work in short sessions of 5 to 30 minutes and have several sessions each week. The more sessions you do, the quicker your dog’s behavior will change.

Some Sample Hierarchies

In setting up a stimulus hierarchy for desensitization/counter conditioning, first try to identify all of the stimuli that cause your dog to react; then arrange them in increasing order of producing a reaction. Often you can create a hierarchy with objects by varying the distance from them. The further away the dog is, the less intense is the stimulus.

With moving objects like animals, people or bicycles, hierarchies can be created by varying the speed of movement. The slower the movement, the less intense the stimulus. Start with the object not moving at all, and then moving slowly, then more quickly.

I. Thunderstorm Phobias

A. Play a tape recording of a thunderstorm at a volume that your dog hears (pricks ears, looks in the direction of the sound) but does not become fearful. Gradually increase the volume of the tape within the session and over a number of sessions until it is as loud as or louder than real thunder.

B. If possible, add visual effects (strobe light to mimic lightening flashes). Start with low intensity and short duration, then gradually increase them. Add other elements a little at a time to make the storm more realistic. For example, wind from a fan, moisture from a humidifier, a darkened room.

C. Gradually make the situation as realistic as you can by putting all the elements together with the loud tape recording.

D. Don’t forget to use treats, play or massage to get your dog in his “counter” emotional state before you present the thunderstorm stimuli, and continue to do this throughout each training session.

E. During the early stages of a natural storm, do positive things with your dog to counter his fearful emotions such as play, short walks, cooking food, etc. If you are doing obedience training with your dog, a short simple training session can help to distract the dog from the storm and counter his fear.

II. Barking and Jumping Up on People at the Door

A. Put your dog on a sit-stay or down-stay and use tasty treats or gentle massage to get him relaxed and calm. Continue to do this throughout each training session.

B. Make a tape recording of footsteps coming up the walk, knocking, doorbell ringing, cars coming up the driveway, whatever your dog reacts to. Play the tape starting at low volume and work up until your dog no longer reacts to the real doorbell or other stimuli. If you can’t make a tape, have family members or friends simulate these sounds starting way to break up the stimulus or make it simpler. (7) Work in short sessions of 5 to 30 with very low intensity sounds and gradually increasing them.

C. Arrange for people unfamiliar to your dog to come to the door, knock or ring the doorbell. Open the door but do not bring the strangers into the house. Putting your dog into a sit/stay or down/stay during this procedure will help. Gradually increase the duration of the visits. The dog should be on a leash or restrained under your control during these exercises until you are sure he will not respond badly. If he does respond badly, go back to a simpler situation, then gradually make it more complex.

D. Put your dog in a sit/stay at a distance from the door and bring the visitors in. Use treats as described previously. Let the dog approach the visitors, not vice versa. Keep the dog on leash and under your control. This procedure may take two people – one to let the visitors in, the second to control the dog.

Copyright 2005, Janis W. Driscoll & D.Q. Estep. May be reproduced only in its entirety for educational
purposes. Not for resale. All rights reserved.
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