When our dogs are new to our home, it's important to give them time to adjust to their home, it's people, and routines. After a few months, we then often set out in attempts to desensitize our dogs to distractions outside our house and immediate surrounding. Maybe we are taking our dog to the park, a friend's house, or pet friendly events. This is where we start to notice certain things that trigger a stronger emotional response from our dogs and often cause outbursts of behaviors that we deem inappropriate. When that happens, we tend to want to help our dogs feel better about that trigger with some counterconditioning sessions.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning (DS/CC) are big words and popular buzz words in the dog training industry. And the success of using DS/CC is dependent on good mechanics and understanding the process. This is why I do not suggest you undertake this process alone if your dog is overly anxious.
The first step in the process is finding a safe distance to work at. The goal is to keep your dog feeling safe, calm, and happy as they notice the trigger. That might mean you start at a football field away or even more! If the trigger is sound related, you might be starting 5 miles away. The key is that you are just close enough that your dog notices the trigger but can easily focus on you or continue the activity they were doing before they noticed the trigger.
The next step involves delivering a high value reinforcement to your dog as soon as they notice the trigger. The Look At That Game can be used here. For most dogs, food is going to be the easiest form of reinforcement for you to use; boiled chicken, freeze dried meat treats, something they love and don't get often. If food is not a high value reinforcement for your dog, you can use toys, games, and enrichment activities that they love.
Then over time, at a slow pace you can eventually shrink the distance between your team (you & your dog) and the trigger. In order to be successful here, you need to move slowly and watch your dog's body language very closely. You need to prevent them from reacting to the trigger which causes more fear and makes you backslide in progress. This often happens when you try to move too close too fast! And if this happens often, you really need to get help from an experienced trainer who can help you pick up on subtle things you might be missing.
If you want to learn more on using DS/CC to help your dog overcome a fear, check out this video from SD Handlers chatting about DS/CC Tips.
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