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There is not a day that goes by that I do not find myself using the terms Desensitization and Counterconditioning when responding to people’s questions about what they can do about their reactive Husky’s behaviours. Even though I covered the steps for using these processes in the article, Rehabilitating Your Husky, I feel that this topic needs more explanation so that people can understand how they can correctly apply this rehabilitation technique to ALL of their Husky’s over reactive issues.
In the above mentioned article, I described the steps of how to determine the Reactive Threshold of your dog, how and why you need to work with the dog beneath this threshold, and how to change the way your dog feels about the trigger causing the reactivity. What people might not understand is that this process is the Basic Recipe for how to deal with all kinds of triggers that cause your dog to over react.
It really does not matter if the problem is that your dog is reactive to other dogs, reacts in fear to men, or is afraid of the vacuum cleaner. The answer to these problems are all the same; change the way the dog thinks and feels about the trigger and the over reactive behaviours will subside. But before you can do that, you have to discover at what distance your dog begins to physically react, remove him from the Reaction Zone, and then apply the Counterconditioning procedure.
Understanding The Concepts
Threshold is a word used to describe the physical zone or the distance away from a Trigger (an object that causes a strong reaction) that makes your dog react. You have to know at what proximity your dog reacts to a person or object because when you bring them in too close to that object, the dog begins to react emotionally and physically.
At the distance where a dog has become highly over-reactive (over the Threshold of Reactivity) you can no longer work to affect your dog while he is in that state of mind. In order for you to be able to help the dog change his thinking and behaviour, you have to work with him in the Safe Zone or under the Reactivity Threshold (further away from the trigger) where his is still calm and thinking rationally.
This term refers to the process of helping your dog change his mind about how he feels about a Trigger. To help a dog get over their reactivity issues when they see a normally fear, anxiety, or aggression producing Trigger, we pair a food stimulus (a High Value Treat) with the sight of the Trigger to help the dog form a new way to feel about the Trigger.
After many controlled exposures to the Trigger, plus the addition of a High Value treat, the dog eventually makes a new more pleasant association with the sight of the Trigger. But this process can only be accomplished if the dog stays under the Reactivity Threshold.
Flooding the dog (overwhelming the dog with too much stimulus from the Trigger) by bringing him too close and too quickly to the object he fears and reacts to, only serves to create more fear or aggression in the dog. At that point the dog shuts off to hearing you or being able to respond to corrections or cues issued by you.
When Desensitization and Counterconditioning are correctly applied to a dog’s reactive issues, we can help a dog change how he feels about nearly anything that currently causes him to react in fear or with aggression.
Determining Your Dog’s Reactive Threshold
It is vital to the process that you accurately determine the distance to the Trigger where your dog begins to over react. No two dogs are exactly the same. Finding your dog’s Reaction Threshold is essential to the process of change.
How To Determine Your Dog’s Reactivity Threshold
- Identify a Trigger source for your dog (one that is not moving). This can be a dog sitting behind a fence, an object he fears, or a person that he dislikes or fears.
- Begin walking towards the Trigger. Notice at what distance the dog begins to respond to the Trigger but only mildly reacts. Mark this distance with a rock or stick.
- Now begin walking closer to the Trigger. Mark the point where the dog’s behaviour begins show signs of high reactivity (growl, bark, cower, tries to flee etc.). Mark this place with a rock or stick.
You now have a physical representation of your dog’s Threshold for Reactivity. From the first outside marker up to the second marker is your Safe Zone. This distance is considered to be under the Threshold. It is at this distance that you can work on Desensitizing your dog to the Trigger.
The distance from the second (inner) marker to the Trigger or Target is considered to be over the Threshold. Within this zone you cannot work to Desensitize your dog to the Trigger. Over the Threshold your dog is too far into fear or aggression to properly hear you or to respond you or to the High Value treats.
You must ALWAYS be working within the designated Safe Zone when you are working to Countercondition a dog. If you take your dog in closer (over the Threshold of Reactivity) to the Trigger too soon, your dog’s fear will begin triggering his behaviours and the experience will quickly become overwhelming for him.
How Counterconditioning Works
Very simply, the object of the Counterconditioning (CC) is to slowly begin moving your dog in closer and closer to the Trigger with each circuit (Desensitizing) and then feeding it High Value Treats so it begins to associate sight of the Trigger with a new more pleasant experience ( CC). In order for your dog not to be flooded and overwhelmed by the sight of the Trigger you must stay within the Safe Zone (the area between the markers) at first.
As your dog begins to become less sensitive to the Trigger, you may pick up your second marker and move it closer to the Trigger, expanding your Safe Zone and reducing your Over the Threshold zone. Do not progress your dog too quickly towards the Trigger. There has to be virtually no physical or emotional reaction to the Trigger before you begin moving the second marker and your dog in closer to the Trigger.
Eventually, with many repeated exposures to the Trigger and the addition of High Value Treats, the dog can get closer and closer to the Trigger without reacting negatively to the sight of the Trigger. The dog has now formed new more pleasant associations with the Trigger and the former reactive behaviours will have stopped. Your dog is now Desensitized to the Trigger and it has been Counter Conditioned to have a different response to the Trigger.
- Begin with your dog at the first outside marker. Begin moving slowly moving toward the Trigger.
- At the very first sign of a mild reaction from your dog, ask your dog to sit and face you.
- Begin feeding it tiny High Value treats. If your dog keeps his focus on you and takes 10 treats in a row, turn and remove your dog back to the outside of the Safe Zone ( by the first marker). First circuit completed.
- If the dog does not sustain the focus on you and instead watches or becomes anxious about the trigger, remove the dog from the Safe Zone and begin again, this time stopping your dog a little further back from the Trigger than before. When the dog can sustain attention on you and will take 10 treats in a row, remove the dog back to the outside of the Safe Zone (first marker). The circuit is completed and you are ready to move in closer on your next attempt.
- On the second circuit, begin to bring your dog in toward the trigger watching for first signs of mild reaction. Again, have the dog sit and face you. Begin feeding it treats. Then remove the dog to the outside of the ring to either try again or to move it closer to the trigger on the next circuit. When CC is correctly applied, it allows you to bring your dog in closer toward the trigger with every circuit completed through the Safe Zone.
Get Ready To Move The Inner Marker
When you can reach the second or inner marker with your dog without getting a reaction from your dog, you are ready to move the second marker closer to the Trigger.
- Enter the Safe Zone with your dog, pass by the second marker and into the area that was previously considered to be Over the Threshold zone. Watch your dog very carefully and where he begins to react strongly to the Trigger will be the new placement for the second marker. Move the second marker to this new spot.
- Remove the dog from the zone and get ready to make a new circuit, this time observing the newly reduced proximity to the Trigger. Stop your dog when you see a mild reaction, feed 10 consecutive treats. Remove the dog and either try again or prepare to make a new circuit.
- Continue the process of moving your dog in and out of the always expanding Safe Zone, feeding treats, and continually moving the second marker in closer to the Trigger until eventually you can pass by the Trigger without your dog reacting to the Trigger.
- When your dog no longer has a reaction to the Trigger, he has been Counter Conditioned to a new response and a new behaviour. He now associates the sight of the Trigger not with fear or aggression, but with the pleasant action of getting a yummy treat.
The Process Of Change Takes Time
How quickly the process of Desensitization and Counterconditioning of your dog works will be proportionate to how severely your dog reacts to the Trigger and how long the dog has been living with this fear and aggression. Be patient. Change is a process and it takes time.
You cannot expect your dog to change his behaviours in one day. Sometimes a dog’s over reaction has become a habit. He may not even know any other way to handle his stress and fear. This process of change is something that needs to be practiced daily. It is better to practice for less time and more often rather than one marathon session applied sporadically.
Take your cues from your dog. If he is tired or shutting down emotionally, stop the session. If you make this process very unpleasant for the dog he will end up needed to be Desensitized and Counter Conditioned to this process too! Always see the dog and set him up for success.
As always, we welcome your comments, questions, and stories regarding this topic. When we share our stories we may be helping someone who is struggling with their Snow Dog.
Helping ALL Snow Dogs …. one owner at a time.