Featuring Jen Larson, KPA-CTP & Courtney Emken
Concept by Courtney Emken

The basic process of desensitization and counterconditioning is a procedure that we use often with a variety of behaviors and issues. When a dog is “over threshold”—they are reacting to stimuli in an over-the-top, intense way. In this state, they’re not able to learn well or function so they can’t change any of their emotional responses to whatever it is that’s making them uncomfortable. We have to start with our dogs at a low level of exposure to whatever the trigger is, so they are calm and still able to function and learn.


– So the basic process of desensitization and counter conditioning is a procedure that we use often with a variety of behaviors and issues. When a dog is over threshold, that means that they’re already reacting to stimuli in an over-the-top, intense way, and when they’re doing that they’re in this kind of red-zone, where cortazol and adrenaline and stress chemicals are created and so it’s not a good time to try to be teaching them anything. They’re not able to learn well or function and we’re not able to change any of their emotional responses to whatever’s making them uncomfortable. So where we have to start, is a place where they’re not reacting, so finding a working distance or a low level of exposure to whatever the trigger is, where the dog is still able to function and learn.

– So we get a lot of calls like that where people whose dogs are in a park, and they’re passing another dog on the trail and the dog just goes off on the other dog, and that’s reactivity, a lot of people don’t even know that term, but that’s what we’re looking at, right.

– Right, so reactivity is a intense or exaggerated response to stimuli or to a trigger. So there are lots of different types of reactivity. reactivity, barrier reactivity, where the dog is barking behind a fence, or barking out of a window at a person walking by. So one way that we can work with reactivity is to use this procedure of desensitization and counterconditioning. So the first step would be to find your working distance. So find out where the dog’s threshold is before they start reacting to the trigger. So that’s starting the process of desensitization, so exposing your dog to a low level, to their trigger, and then once we’re there we can start using the counter conditioning component where we are adding some positive emotional associations with the trigger. Pairing the trigger with something that the dog likes or enjoys, which usually is high-value food. So when we’re working with a reactive dog, we might go to a park, find a good spot, where the dog can see other dogs passing by, but they’re not too close where the dog is actually reacting. Once we’re in that spot, then we can start something that we call glance work, or the engage/disengage game where the dog is engaging with their trigger, looking at their trigger, and then we mark and reward that behavior, so the dog is starting to learn, okay, look at that thing that used to make me uncomfortable or anxious I stay calm, I’m rewarded for that. And so that’s the first level of the game and then we would move to the second level where the dog is kind of learning how to play the game, and so they’re looking at their trigger, staying calm, being marked and rewarded, so then they start to look back at the handler, and so then the behavior becomes, I look at this trigger, I stay calm, I look back at my handler and I get a reward. So you’re changing the emotional response of the dog to their trigger, and you’re setting up a new behavior of checking in with the handler, instead of reacting to the trigger.

– You know really don’t like getting their nails trimmed Noodle, for instance, is one of them, and also he really doesn’t like the vacuum cleaner on so those are things that you could use that for, right?

– Absolutely.

– Anything that a dog is feeling uncomfortable with or anxious about you can use as a procedure to try to change some of those emotional responses.

– So, just like for instance when with the nail trim, you could have the clippers out give him treats with just the clipper there Let the clipper touch their nail but not actually clip it, give him treats for that, is that?

– Exactly. So what you’re describing is a process of desensitization so leaving the clipper out in the environment so it becomes a part of the environment The dog doesn’t have any sort of emotional response to it. And then, starting to pair that with good things. So give him a treat, do some lower level exposure where you’re starting to touch the clipper with a paw. That’s exactly what you would do with this procedure.

– That’s great.

– Another set of issues that you could use this procedure for would be thunder storm anxiety or anxiety about anything really in general. But, specifically, first for thunder storm anxiety what you could do is find a recording of thunder and stormy sounds online and play it at a very low volume for your dogs who are starting the process of desensitization and have it kind of going on in the environment so they’re getting used to some of those sounds And then you can start pairing it with some good things, so playing that sound at a low volume, feeding your dog, giving them something good to chew on, a peanut butter Kong, something like that so they’re starting to pair those thunderstorm sounds with something good. And then as you go you can gradually increase the volume of the thunderstorm sounds and then so you’re starting this process of habituation where the dog is getting used to those sounds and not feeling so anxious or scared when they hear them.

– Right, so you want to remind people just to go slowly and not rush into that process, because rushing it might really cause a lot of problems. But also, there’s other things that you can do for thunder storm anxiety, right? What are some other–?

– Yeah, absolutely. So making your process of desensitization and counter conditioning even stronger you could use some calming additives and other things to kind of take the edge off for the dog so they’re able to get some stronger neural connections while you’re doing these training-

– Um hm.

– Sessions, so things like thunder shirts. Some dogs like wearing a compression jacket that kind of makes them feel snuggled. That can help with some of the anxiety. Calming treats, some of my favorite brands are Zuke’s or Composure Chews, they have a pretty strong calming ingredient that really seems to work for dogs.

– Yes, I know over the years we’ve used things like Rescue Remedy for dogs that had thunderstorm anxiety, and now we’re using CBD Oil, in either their food or their water to help bring those anxiety levels down, and that’s really working for the dogs here.

– CDB Oil is great, I’ve seen some really nice results from using that with stressed-out or anxious dogs A couple other things that you can do are using dog-appeasing pheromones in a diffuser or a spritz or a bandana So there’s a brand called Adaptil, adapt spray, which is actually a synthetic pheromone version of what a mom dog secretes to her puppies, so it’s a really calming scent for animals. Other calming scents are lavender aromatherapy you can plug in a diffuser and that can kind of take the edge off for dogs. The one really cool thing that you can do with this procedure of desensitization or counter conditioning, is you can purposefully create positive emotional associations for your animal with whatever you like. So, for example, if your dog might need to be muzzled at the vet, or muzzled for travel, something like that, You can introduce the muzzle to your dog in a positive way, and start by desensitizing them to it, and then start gradually adding those counter conditioning components where you’re making positive emotional associations with the dog with the muzzle.