Scaredy Pup? Try Desensitization and Counterconditioning

scared puppy

Does going to the vet cause pup to tuck her tail, pull back her ears, and shiver uncontrollably? Or maybe it’s a thunderstorm that rolls in, sending your canine companion hiding under the bed in fear. As pet parents, we often wish we could tell our fur babies that there’s no need to be scared. Instead, we can show them. How? By using two powerful, scientifically-proven techniques: desensitization and counterconditioning.

These methods, often used together, can help your dog overcome fear, anxiety, aggression, and other behavioral issues. They are relatively simple to understand but require patience, understanding, and consistency to implement effectively. The good news is, you don’t have to be a professional dog trainer to use these techniques. You just need a loving heart and a commitment to your dog’s well-being.

What Is Desensitization?

Desensitization, at its core, is all about reducing sensitivity. In the context of dog training, it involves gradually exposing your dog to the thing they fear or react negatively towards. The goal is to decrease your dog’s emotional response, helping them become less reactive over time.

Take the thunderstorm example. If your dog trembles at the sound of thunder, desensitization would involve exposing your dog to the sound at a level so low it doesn’t cause any fear. Over time, you slowly increase the volume, always ensuring your dog doesn’t show signs of distress.

The principle behind desensitization is that repeated exposure to a trigger at non-threatening levels can help your dog become accustomed to it, reducing their fear or anxiety. It’s akin to us conquering our fears by facing them head-on, albeit in a controlled and gradual way.

What Is Counterconditioning?

While desensitization is about reducing sensitivity, counterconditioning is about changing emotional responses. It involves pairing the fear-inducing trigger with something positive, changing your dog’s association with that trigger.

Let’s stick with our thunderstorm example. You’ve been desensitizing your dog to the sound of thunder. Now, while playing the low-level thunder sounds, you give your dog a favorite treat or engage in a fun play session. The idea is for your dog to begin associating the sound of thunder with good things. Instead of triggering fear, the once-scary sound now predicts yummy treats or fun playtime.

Counterconditioning can be incredibly powerful because it doesn’t just reduce your dog’s fear or anxiety; it replaces those negative emotions with positive ones. It’s a bit like replacing a scary movie soundtrack with a happy, upbeat tune. It changes the whole emotional experience.

Implementing These Training Techniques

Desensitization and counterconditioning are often used together. It’s a bit like taking two powerful tools and combining them to create something even more effective.

Here’s how you can implement desensitization and counterconditioning. First, identify your dog’s triggers and rank them from least to most scary. Start with the least scary and gradually expose your dog to it, always ensuring they remain comfortable. At the same time, pair the exposure with something your dog loves, like treats, toys, or praise.

Gradually increase the intensity of the trigger, always pairing it with the positive reward. Keep sessions short and end on a positive note. If your dog shows signs of distress, back off and start again at a lower intensity. Remember, the goal is to build positive associations, not to overwhelm your dog.

Tips For Success

Patience and consistency are key when implementing desensitization and counterconditioning. It’s not a quick fix but a gradual process. Don’t rush it. Let your dog set the pace. If you move too fast, you may end up making your dog’s fear or anxiety worse.

Make each training session a positive experience. Remember, your goal is to change your dog’s emotional response, and that will only happen if your dog feels safe and happy. Be generous with rewards and praise. And always end sessions on a high note, even if you have to lower the intensity of the trigger.

Lastly, don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you’re struggling. There’s no shame in needing guidance. Desensitization and counterconditioning are powerful tools, but they need to be used correctly to be effective. A professional dog trainer or behaviorist can guide you through the process, ensuring the best outcome for you and your furry friend.


Desensitization and counterconditioning can be incredibly effective in helping your dog overcome fear, anxiety, and other behavioral issues. They require patience, consistency, and understanding, but the results are well worth the effort. Remember, at the end of the day, your dog’s well-being is what matters the most. And what could be more rewarding than seeing your furry friend living their best, happiest life?

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