Desensitization and Counterconditioning

You have a good chance of modifying your dog's fearful behavior with desensitization, a systematic process of reducing fear; and counterconditioning, which teaches the dog a new reaction in response to his fear triggers. Before you start, make sure you have you have sit and look on command. You're already presenting yourself as a good leader, right?


  • Identify the trigger you want to work on, skateboards, for example.

  • Present your dog with his trigger at a low level of intensity. In this instance, distance is one way to lower the intensity, and making sure the skateboard doesn't move is another. You will have to experiment to find your dog's critical distance, or the closest he can be to the trigger without fear.

  • Teach your dog to sit and “look” at his critical distance. CR/treat for success. Repeat until he's not even thinking about the trigger at that distance

  • Move a little closer to the trigger (or it can move closer to you), 1–5 percent of the distance to start. Work on sit and “look” until the dog is comfortable again.

  • Very gradually, always based on your dog's success, move closer, until you are right next to the trigger and he can still function.

  • Repeat the process with each trigger or each variable (a moving skateboard, for example).

  • If your dog shows fear at any time during the process, back up to where he can be successful.

  • Be patient! It can take days, weeks, or months to make progress.

  • End each session with success.

Control the Triggers

It is important to reduce (or eliminate, if possible) your dog's contact with fear triggers during the desensitization/counterconditioning process. Some fears, like thunderstorm phobia, are more difficult to treat, both because you can't control them, and because your dog may be reacting to more than just the obvious triggers (like barometric pressure, not just thunder). Thunderstorm phobia treatment is covered in Chapter 20.

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