Treating reactivity - desensitisation and counter conditioning

This page describes the basic concept of desensitisation and counter conditioning

What is Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning?

Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning is two concepts rolled into one to hopefully change the emotional response of the dog to the trigger. These concepts are used not only in dog training. These are also used across human psychology and all work with living things. There have even been studies done on the use of these modification techniques on plants!


These techniques can be used across many issues, from fear/reactivity to the lawnmower to obsessions with certain objects.



Desensitisation is changing the emotional response of the dog from fear, aggression, obsession, etc. to no reaction at all. We then use counter conditioning to change that to a good association.


They practice this in humans who have phobias of things like spiders, it is very effective but takes a lot of commitment.


The important thing when using desensitisation is not to do something we call “flooding”. Flooding the dog is when you bring the trigger too close too quickly and the dog cannot restrain from reacting. This isn’t always a distance thing, of course, sometimes it can come down to the intensity of the trigger.


For example, if you are desensitising your dog to barking at a lawnmower. The dog may be fine being within 10m of the lawnmower while it is off but if you turn it on the dog will be sent into a reactive state.  It is the same concept when using a dog to desensitise a dog reactive dog. Use a calm and quiet dog at first who is going to ignore your dog. Keep in mind an excited dog is a whole other level for your dog.


There can be times when flooding a dog can also cause that dog to then do something we call “reverted aggression”. This is where it all just becomes too much and they are overwhelmed and they may then turn their reactivity towards their handler, a passerby or anything/one within their reach. We want to avoid this at all costs.


You may think your dog is doing well but pushing them too far too quickly may be dangerous.


Counter Conditioning

Counter Conditioning is changing a reaction to a stimulus so, for example, asking your dog to look at you every time they see another dog then rewarding. Your dog will start to automatically look at you when they see another dog.


This can be used in many different scenarios, right down to your dog understanding when their food bowl comes out they must sit even if you don’t ask.


We are using counter conditioning with our dogs every day without realising it. Ask your dog to sit before you take his lead off at the beach or park, soon he will do it without asking. You’ve practiced counter conditioning by giving them the reward of being free to run once they sit at that specific place.  My dog Jim will start anticipating the Sit as soon as we get to our usual off lead walking places. If I pause at all he will immediately sit.  He also knows he must stay once the lead is off until I release him with a verbal cue. This is linking those behaviours. You can use counter conditioning to link behaviours as well. Like asking your dog to step to the side, sit and watch you when another dog is passing. Your dog will start to go to the side and sit when they see an approaching dog without being asked.


Linking the two together

Linking both Counter Conditioning and Desensitisation together comes quite naturally. The main thing to remember is distance. Keep your distance when starting and keep the intensity low.


Basically, we keep the trigger at a distance and we build up a reaction we want to the stimuli. In this case, we will use the dog looking at us. We ask the dog to look at us and reward then move away. The dog should start to look at us automatically when they see the trigger. Always remember the reward isn’t just the treat, toy or affection you use, crucially it is also the act of moving away from the thing they do not like.


Once the dog is consistently looking at us we then move a little bit closer.  Always gauge your dogs’ reaction and move away if they seem close to reacting. If they will not break their stare, shake, vocalise or seem like they cannot concentrate in general, you are too close to the trigger.


Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning Plan

Here is a basic plan for a dog who is reactive towards other dogs.


For this plan you will need a few things:

  • Decoy dog, at first a calm and stable dog
  • High-value food like meats or wet treats, these treats should only be used for this routine.
  • A special Toy that should only be used for training.
  • A helper, a human who can help with the decoy dog and also knows what to look for if you are making mistakes.
  • Something to mark where the decoy dog was and where your dog was at the end of the training.
  • An appropriate lead and collar for your dog, it is essential that you feel in control of your dog. If you have a large breed or struggle to hold your dog then a headcollar is often very helpful.
  • If your dog has ever bitten another dog or person you will need to condition your dog to wear a muzzle. 
  • A notebook can be helpful to record progress as progress can be slow and hard to notice. An even better idea is to video your sessions so you can see any mistakes you may be making.
  • A calm and upbeat mindset!  This is the most important! If you are stressed or anticipating a reaction your dog will also be stressed and you won’t be at your best.


Remember to always keep sessions short and sweet. 15 minutes is a good amount of time. Don’t push your dog past their limits, this is the biggest mistake when doing these routines. Progress may go quickly or it may be slow and very small. It’s important to remember this plan is just a guide using the best-case scenario of a dog who understands the situation quickly and moves forward very quickly.


It is also understandable that another dog and helper may not be available every day, this guide is assuming you have constant access to that. For tips on how to get around that see the troubleshooting section below.


Step 1

  • Teach your dog to look at you on command.
  • Organise for a calm and stable dog to be your decoy dog.
  • Have a second person handle the decoy dog at a distance.
  • Bring your dog to a distance where you feel they will be comfortable but still notice the other dog.
  • When your dog notices the other dog ask them to look at you and reward then take them away from the other dog.
  • Repeat a few times and on about the 10th repetition wait to see if your dog automatically looks at you.
  • If your dog does look at you “throw a party” Give a large number of treats or play with their toy and praise excessively. End session.


Step 2

  • Start at where you left off last time as if you didn’t move forward during that session if that makes sense (normally at the start of the session we move one step back to ensure the dog isn’t regressing)
  • Wait to see if your dog looks at you, if he doesn’t it’s perfectly normal. Dogs don’t generalise so they tend to take a bit of reminding. If your dog does look right away give huge praise and reward.
  • Once your dog automatically looks at you a few times take a step forward, gauge their reaction and if they seem uncomfortable take half a step back and continue this process.
  • If they are comfortable continue as before. Repeat a few times.
  • Every time your dog automatically looks at you a few times in a row and seems comfortable, move forward. Some dogs can only handle a slight move, Others can move a step or two.
  • As you get closer make sure you aren’t rushing things and your dog truly is comfortable.
  • End session on a good note


Step 3

  • Start a step back from where you left off.
  • Continue the routine
  • Pay attention to how your dog feels
  • As you get closer to the trigger consider taking a few steps back and asking your helper to move the decoy dog around. Have the dogs walking at a distance side by side and slowly bring them closer to each other.
  • It is important to make sure you keep an eye on your dog and ask your helper to as well as they may see things you don’t.
  • End session on a good note


Step 4

  • Continue training with the calm dog until you are at the point where they can walk side by side.
  • Once the dogs are side by side walking comfortably have your helper walk the calm dog in front where your dog has the opportunity to sniff them. Dogs are very unlikely to start conflict this way as there is no eye contact or the possibility of rude behaviour. Let your dog have a short 0.5-second sniff then ask them to look at you and praise and reward heavily.
  • Continue this process slowly, Do not let the dogs interact face to face.



Step 5

  • As we move on with our sessions it is important to also look at sourcing a dog who may have a bit more energy and be harder for our dog to ignore.
  • Start back at step 1 but with the more excited dog.
  • You should be able to move through the steps much quicker but don’t be surprised if your dog regresses in progress with a new energetic dog.
  • Take your time and treat it like you are starting all over again.
  • Always use extra caution around a more unruly dog as they can be unpredictable.
  • Remember to keep your sessions short and sweet as always.



Trouble Shooting

Common problems you may face with this routine:


My dog reacts no matter how far away the trigger is:

If this is the case it may be time to start with desensitisation just using the sound or smell of the thing your dog doesn’t like. In the case of other dogs play a video of dogs barking and have a towel that smells like another dog. Give rewards every time your dog sniffs the towel and listens to the sound. After a while try starting from a very long distance like a football field length away.


I don’t have access to another dog or helper:

This is a hard one as unless it is in a controlled environment this process becomes very difficult and can sometimes be unsafe. You could try posting on local facebook groups asking if someone will help.  You may find someone interested in learning more about dog behaviour who will help or even just a friendly neighbour. 


My dog randomly started reacting worse, we were going so well:

This could be due to a few things. Firstly your dog could just be having a bad day, we all have them. It could also be a thing called “Trigger Stacking”. This is where too many things have made your dog uncomfortable in a short amount of time and its all stacked up and overwhelmed them. When this happens it is best to take a few days break and just enjoy your dog, play together and do some fun obedience games. Then start again a few steps back from where you were and see how they go.


My dog isn’t progressing as fast as I would like:

This is a common problem people express. These exercises take time. We are changing the whole way your dog sees the world and the way the chemicals in their brain respond to certain things. Without being able to use words to explain this, it can be a confusing, intense time for your dog. One that should be taken slowly and carefully. You can do more damage than good if you rush. Every dog will progress at a different rate. Some might take weeks, some months and I’ve seen some dogs take years but with a dedicated owner, it will happen.


My dog won’t take treats or toys around the decoy dog:

This means you’ve moved too fast too soon. Even if your dog isn’t barking, growling, lunging they are still over the threshold. They are just shut down and not expressing it. In this case, take a few steps back and see how they react.


People keep trying to approach me with their dogs while I am training:

This is a common problem when training. It is important to keep your dog away from their triggers in uncontrolled environments while training. The worst thing you can do is have another dog approach your dog and set your training back because of it.


It is important to use your voice. You are the only protection your dog has. Say loudly “We are training, please do not approach with your dog” if they do not listen try to move away. You are better off ending the session rather than have your dog go over the threshold and have a bad experience.


You can also get collars, leads, harnesses, bandanas and other gear from the company Friendly Dog Collars.


They provide high-quality equipment and I use it for one of my own rescue dogs who is lead reactive.  He will interact very nicely off lead but he is very anxious about other dogs when he is on lead and I have to manage his behaviour.


This sort of gear will help with preventing unwanted approaches and I trust its quality and sturdiness.


If in doubt always ask for help

This is a hard and slow road and it’s always best to ask for help if you are unsure.  We are always here to help and we can organise a plan for you and your dog to set you up for success!