Desensitisation and counter-conditioning
Discover behaviour modification techniques to reduce the undesirable emotional response that a dog experiences.
Desensitisation and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) are behaviour modification techniques. They can be used in behaviour modification programmes (BMPs) to reduce the undesirable emotional response that a dog experiences to a particular trigger.
In the veterinary clinic setting, this may be the fear associated with being handled by the veterinary surgeon during a clinical examination.
Understanding the process of desensitisation and counter-conditioning will allow your veterinary clinic to provide owners with some simple steps/advice to help with veterinary visits.
It will also enable the clinic to provide owners with information about the use of DS/CC programmes for more complex problem behaviour cases whilst they are waiting for referral to accredited behaviourists.
The emotional response
Emotions can be defined as:
"Processes which are likely to have evolved from basic mechanisms that gave animals the ability to avoid harm or punishments and to seek valuable resources or reward[s].”
Defining desensitisation and counter-conditioning
This is the process of reducing a response by presenting the trigger in its least intense form and gradually building up the intensity over time. This means that the dog only experiences the trigger at a level they can cope with.
The ultimate end goal of desensitisation is to reach a point whereby the dog is no longer sensitive to the trigger at all.
This changes the emotion or behaviour by associating the trigger with something positive, such as verbal praise from the owner, stroking or high value treats.
Discussing with the owner which interactions or foods are likely to produce the most positive emotions in their dog is an important step in this process as each dog will have their own.
For many dogs, this is likely to be food but might also include playing with toys, tactile interaction, being permitted to sniff and run off-lead – anything which brings about a positive emotion.
Owners can be encouraged to reflect upon all the things their dog finds rewarding, and particularly when they’re interested in these different rewards.
For example, even within the umbrella term of food, dogs will have preferences for different times and situations. A dog who loves playing with toys might enjoy several different kinds of games, from chasing and searching for toys, to ripping them up or even just carrying them.
It is worth being aware that how the dog feels about the positive action being presented might also change over time, for example, if they have a medical condition or within certain contexts.
Accredited behaviourists and trainers can help owners identify which type of reward to use to strengthen desired behaviour – and how to deliver rewards to their dogs in the most motivating way possible – in order to help modify behaviour in positive, enjoyable, and lasting ways.
Desensitisation and counter-conditioning are commonly used together to enhance learning.
It is important that owners are aware that the end goal of a desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme is to change the underlying emotion, which will then in turn reduce the outward signs of that emotion, for example, the lunging towards the vet during the consultation.
A general overview of a desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme
Manage owner expectations
The desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme needs to work at the dog’s pace. If the dog reacts at any stage when the intensity of the trigger is increased, then the owner will need to decrease the intensity so that the dog does not react.
It is therefore not going to be a quick fix. It will take time and dedication from the owner, but ultimately can be very rewarding.
Gather background information
The desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme will need to be tailored specifically for the individual dog after taking a detailed history from the owner.
Identify what the dog is responding to
What is triggering the observable signs? For example, a dog might be displaying signs that they are fearful when in the veterinary clinic, such as lowering their tail and body, ears flattened, panting, and lip-smacking. The veterinary clinic itself is therefore the trigger in this case.
Identify the most intense element
Once you have identified the trigger, in this case the veterinary clinic, you can then look at the different aspects of the trigger and work out what is the most intense element for that dog.
For example, the owner may inform you that the first aspect is the proximity to the clinic. Walking parallel to the veterinary clinic at a distance of 10 metres away might be acceptable to the dog, but as the owner walks closer to the clinic the observable signs of stress might become more intense.
It is therefore really important to be constantly assessing the body language and behaviour that the dog is showing so that when the owner presents a trigger to the dog, it is easy to gauge the intensity that they are comfortable with, based on their reaction.
Other aspects of this trigger within the veterinary environment could include the other animals in the waiting room, or the level of touching/ handling by the veterinary team in the consultation room.
Develop the desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme for the dog
- Break down the end goal into individual smaller steps. In this case, the end goal is to get the dog comfortable with attending the veterinary clinic and being examined and handled by the veterinary team, but it needs to be broken down into several smaller steps.
For example, the first step could be to work towards getting the dog comfortable with walking nearer to the veterinary clinic. The second step could be entering the clinic and meeting the reception staff. The third step could be waiting in the waiting room, and finally, the fourth – entering the consultation room and being examined.
- Present the trigger in its least intense form, for example, in this case, walking 10 metres away from the veterinary clinic (DS).
- Pair the trigger with a happy/calm emotion by providing verbal praise/food (CC). This is repeated at every (appropriate) opportunity in order to build a new emotional association.
- Work towards increasing the intensity (DS), which in this case means reducing the distance between the veterinary clinic and the dog, but making sure that if the dog does show outward signs of stress/worry that the intensity is immediately reduced.
Repeat this process until the desired goal of the step is reached, in this case, walking calmly next to the veterinary clinic with no observable behaviour or body language which suggests a fearful emotion.
It is worth noting that the desensitisation and the counter-conditioning process might not be sufficient to completely resolve the problematic behaviour.
Additional behaviour modification and training methods might be required alongside the DS/CC programme, for example, settle, muzzle and handling training could all be introduced at home by using reward-based training methods.
There are owner-facing resources which can help with these additional aspects. There are also resources for the veterinary team about muzzle training appointments, and puppy habituation and socialisation events.
Desensitisation and counter-conditioning should therefore be thought of as a part of the jigsaw, but other pieces of behavioural management and training are likely to be needed for a successful overall outcome.
Support and advice from an accredited behaviourist is likely to be required for more complex cases.
Review how the rehabilitation process is working and once the aim of the first step has been reached, continue on to the next steps, with additional behavioural modification/training as required until the end goal has been reached.
Encourage desirable behaviour
An additional layer that can be introduced into DS/CC programmes is to teach the dog a specific behaviour or encourage an appropriate behaviour when encountering the trigger.
For example, getting the dog to concentrate on their owner when walking near the veterinary clinic and using food as a reward for the desirable behaviour. This should be behaviour that has already been ‘pre-taught’ away from the trigger.
Desensitisation and counter-conditioning in other contexts
Desensitisation and counter-conditioning programmes are commonly used when a dog is showing signs of fear or frustration in a particular context. Below are some other contexts where desensitisation and counter-conditioning can be used.
Up to half of the pet dog population react fearfully to noises such as fireworks, and is therefore considered to be a significant welfare issue. Desensitisation and counter-conditioning can help to reduce this fear.
The British Small Animal Veterinary Association has issued a statement recommending that long-term treatments such as desensitisation, counter-conditioning and drug therapy should be implemented wherever possible for fears and phobias.
Desensitisation and counter-conditioning for noise phobias involve the repeated low-level exposure of the noise that the dog has a fear of (DS) and pairing this with a happy/calm emotion (CC), whilst gradually increasing the noise level – providing that the dog does not show any outward sign of distress by this.
Visit sound therapy for pets for a range of free sound-based treatment programmes.
Separation-related behaviours are commonly diagnosed indirectly as the owner will not actually be present when the dog is showing outward signs of emotion.
Signs of separation-related behaviour can include destruction to the home, such as biting at their bed or digging at the carpet, as well as neighbours reporting barking when the owner is absent.
Desensitisation and counter-conditioning have been shown to decrease both the frequency and severity of separation-related behaviours.
Successful programmes rely on the owner initially only leaving the dog for a few seconds so that the dog doesn’t react (DS), before returning and praising the dog for calm behaviour (CC).
The length of separation is then gradually increased until the required duration of separation has been reached.
A dog might show signs of fear, such as panting, turning away, ears flattened etc when meeting another dog.
Upon further investigation, you might discover that it is the proximity to the other dog that causes the most intense reaction rather than the size or breed. Therefore, a desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme could use a stooge dog (a life-sized toy dog).
Accredited behaviourists may provide a stooge dog to avoid placing any other dog under pressure or risking a potentially negative encounter. If necessary, a stooge dog may be interacted with and manipulated by the behaviourist or an assistant to resemble a real dog, from a distance.
The stooge dog would initially be placed at a distance whereby there was no observable reaction (DS), such as at the other side of a field/park. The owner would pair this with a happy/calm emotion such as giving praise or a treat (CC).
If it is not possible to use a stooge dog, then a friend with a dog that is not reactive to other dogs could be used. The owner of the other dog would have their dog on a lead and initially be walking on the other side of the field/park.
Over time, and led by the lack of observable signs of distress from the dog undergoing the desensitisation, the distance would be reduced until both dogs were alongside each other.
- Davis, K.L., Montag, C. 2019. Selected principles of Pankseppian affective neuroscience. Frontiers in Neuroscience
- International Association for the Study of Pain website, [Accessed Jan 2022]
- Blackwell, E.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S., Casey, R.A. 2013. Fear responses to noise in domestic dogs: prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science:145, 15-25
- Riemer, S. 2020. Effectiveness of treatments for firework fears in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: 37, 61-70
- Bolster, C. 2012. Fireworks are no fun for pets. Veterinary Nursing Journal; 27, 387-390
- Rogerson, J. 1997. Canine fears and phobia; a regime for treatment without recourse to drugs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science; 52, 291-297
- British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) website. [Accessed Jan 2022]
- Butler, R., Sargisson, R.J., Elliffe, D. 2011. The efficacy of systematic desensitisation for treating the separation- related problem behaviour of domestic dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science:129, 136-145
- Sargisson, R.J. 2014. Canine separation anxiety: strategies for treatment and management. Veterinary Medicine: Research and Reports;5, 143-151
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Disclaimer notice: The advice given on this website [in these materials] is intended for your general information only and should not be relied upon as specific advice for any veterinary practice or clinic. Each veterinary practice or clinic will be unique in its physical environment and each dog attending the veterinary practice or clinic will have specific needs and requirements, which the veterinary practice or clinic is solely responsible for. Unless prohibited by law, Dogs Trust and the British Veterinary Behaviour Association do not accept liability to any person veterinary practice or clinic relating to the use of this information.