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Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

As many of you may know, I worked for the Mounted Police Department since 1994 to 2016 ,this were 22 years as Trainer and Superintendant Assistant for the Mounted Police and Personal (Undercover) Assistant for the K9 Department.

During these years I learned as I trained and one of the most interesting lessons I aquired was the influence of the Sensory Program applied to the Horses. During That time I was already raising Belgian Malinois and German Shepherds.

My Son Franco Santana M. (Now a days one of the most reknown Belgian Malinois breeder and trainer) who was a highly talented Dog and Horse Sense kid was just a pre teen and helped me with all the training when he was not at school, doing so he also learned about the Sensory work and how it influenced the horses ability to perform with excellence and with lots of self confidence. the tasks for success were of great importance when speaking about Mounted Police horses and riding officers, for the big responsability of a great safe succesful achievement was super important when working in public and in hard core situations were the control and training of both Police and Horses were of uptmost importance.

During those years I always took with me my puppies to work and would place them in Play Pens close to the training areas were i would be carrying on the excercises and trainings for the Horses and the Officers. throughout those years I was able to perceive and incredible and dramatic change in the puppies i used to take to be with me at the trainings, I was able to see great self confidence, increased intelligence in solving problems, strong instincts to go forward AND CONFRONT WHAT I COULD CALL KIND OF SKOOKY SITUATIONS, THEY WOULD BE HIGHLY RESILIENT AND BOUNCED BACK VERY FAST TO CONFRONT THE SITUATION.

My puppies were never overly pampered, they were raised with lots of love, Care, atention, lots of playful interactive time and my son would be the one in charge of running up and down in the mountains with them and have them cross over creeks and through the tall tangled grass were many times they got tangled up and he would wait for them to solve the problem. we had a river with lots of rocks were he would take them and they would learn to jumpo from rock to rock, sometimes they would fall dows and they would find the way to climb up, the river was quite shallow nothing deep to place the puppy life in danger. a note on the side...I had lost my mother when I was 12 and had learned what it took to survive in this World, nobody was there to pamper my way through or supply me with trivial things, kids usually ask for, and I had learned to be strong, resilient, and a Problem solver, sometimes good choices, others not as good, but had the creativity to build myself over the not so good decisions. (That is what everybody sayd about me LOL).. So I believed in raising dogs the way I raised my kid , INDIPENDENT AND strong to confront life, learned the hard way, that nothing came for free, you had to work for it, yess Lots of scars, but Scars are signs of strenght !LOL!!

The Breeding, Selection, Raising and development of Souternwind puppies was a reflection of who I was and how I managed to survive. I started to understand that Puppies are not only the genes they carry, but a white slate of what you write on them and if you do things correctly from the beggining with structure, discipline and supply the Instincts needs in a positive way, were they see you as the provider of their safety, food, shelter, structure they will definitely bond to you, but before this their minds have to be resilient, intelligent, they have to be self confident, and this can be prepared since they are babies. this is were we come to ..

What are counter-conditioning, response substitution, and desensitization?

Counter-conditioning and desensitization are powerful ways to change behavior. They are usually used in combination. Desensitization provides a means of safely exposing the pet to the stimulus at a level at or below which fear is likely to be exhibited. Counter-conditioning is used to change the pet’s attitude or emotional response to a stimulus. Response substitution is a technique in which the pet is taught, using reinforcement-based techniques, to replace the undesirable behavior with one that is desirable.

Although counter-conditioning generally refers to changing the pet’s mood (through positive pairings and associations), and response substitution refers to training the desired behaviors (through reinforcement), the treatment of fear and anxiety must focus on achieving both the desired emotional state and the desired behavioral response. Therefore, these terms may occasionally be used interchangeably. Refer to our companion handouts on implementing exposure training, settle exercises, and reward based training for practical applications as to how desensitization, counter-conditioning, and response substitution can be achieved.

For most behavior problems, especially those associated with fear or anxiety, the use of punishment is contraindicated since, even if it suppresses the undesirable behavior, it may further aggravate the pet’s fear and anxiety without teaching your pet anything new.

Training must focus on getting the desired response and a positive mood, rather than trying to stop undesirable responses.

What is classical counter-conditioning?

Counter-conditioning means changing the pet’s emotional response, feelings or attitude toward a stimulus. For example, the dog that lunges at the window when a delivery person walks by is displaying an emotional response of fear or anxiety. Classical counter-conditioning would be accomplished by pairing the sight, sounds and approach of the delivery person with one of the dog’s favored rewards to change the emotional state to one that is calm and positive. Similarly for cats that are anxious or fearful when exposed to a visitor or other cat in the home, we would want to pair the cats favored rewards with the presence of the visitor or other cat. A critical element of success is to prevent any exposure that might lead to a negative outcome during training. For dogs, this might be accomplished by recognizing potential problems and using a sit and focus command, a turn around or maintaining a relaxed walk past the stimulus.

What is desensitization?

Desensitization is the gradual exposure to situations or stimuli that would bring on the undesirable behavior, but at a level so low that there is no negative response. As the animal experiences the stimulus but does not respond in the undesirable way, the animal becomes “less reactive” to the stimulus, and the pet 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 the pet first responds by designing a stimulus gradient (from low responses to high responses) so that the pet can be gradually exposed to progressively more intense levels of the stimulus without the undesirable behavior being elicited. Again, it is essential that the threshold not be surpassed unless the pet can be effectively calmed and settled.

What is response substitution

Response substitution is a technique in which an undesirable behavioral response to a stimulus or situation is changed to one that is desirable. The goal is to reinforce only those responses that are desirable. Reinforcement of a response that is incompatible with the undesirable response might be referred to as differential reinforcement of an incompatible response (DRI). The challenge is to get the desired behavior when exposing the pet to the stimulus, while also getting the appropriate relaxed and happy emotional state. A number of techniques can be used to help the owner turn the inappropriate response into one that is desirable. If the pet is trained through reward based techniques to immediately focus on the owners in response to commands (settle, watch) in the absence of any distracting or fear eliciting stimuli, the training might then progress (through desensitization techniques) to gradually more intense levels of the stimulus.

Alternatively, lure and target training or disruptive devices might be used to help more quickly and effectively achieve the desired outcome. For most dogs, flat collar and leash is often the safest, most effective and most immediate method to obtain the desired response (e.g., sit, focus, or heel). In addition to the use of positive reinforcement, an immediate release of leash tension for each successful outcome also serves to reinforce the behavior. This is known as negative reinforcement because the behavior is being reinforced by removal of pressure and tension.

"This is known as negative reinforcement because the behavior is being reinforced by removal of pressure and tension."

Regardless of the technique used, if the pet can be taught to display a new acceptable response instead of the undesirable response when exposed to a stimulus then response substitution has been achieved. Again, rather than attempting to overcome an intense response, the training should be set up to expose the pet with stimuli of gradually increasing intensity (controlled exposure) to ensure a successful outcome.

By working with a gradient and favored rewards, you may also be simultaneously counter-conditioning the pet. However, when working with fear and anxiety, the training is not complete if you merely get the desired behavioral outcome. A positive emotional state (relaxed, eating treats) must also be achieved using counter-conditioning. For counter-conditioning and response substitution to be most effective, you need This is known as negative reinforcement because the behavior is being reinforced by removal of pressure and tension. to establish a reward gradient for your pet and a method for controlling the exposure to the stimulus in gradually increasing gradients.


Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

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