My Dog Hates Clowns: Desensitization Through Counter Conditioning

By Adam Romsdahl CPDT-KA

Desensitization through counterconditioning (say that five times fast) is a methodology in training used to reroute undesirable behavior and reactions. Though it is seemingly complex in name, the theory behind it is quite simple. One can neutralize and/or potentially reverse a negative association by pairing the event with a positive reinforcer. Simply put, give them something they enjoy when something they dislike is present.

One of my favorite things to do as a trainer is to break down concepts into human examples.

So! Let’s say that you are sitting at a bar. Above the bar, there is a television. On that television, a team you HATE is playing. You get that prickly feeling up your spine, your face gets warm and adrenaline pumps. You’re not in control of these responses. Your brain told your body a while ago that you don’t like this team. So when you see them, you don’t have to think about getting worked up, your body goes into autopilot and does it for you.

To make things worse, you find out this bar is your rival team’s bar! You already have your drink in front of you, and since abandonment is abuse (and you’d never abuse alcohol), you decide that you’ll finish your drink and get OUT OF THERE!
Suddenly, the guys next to you high five, some drunk gal at the jukebox screams that annoying generic “WOOOOO!” and she wasn’t even watching! Uggggh! The team just scored.
“That’s it!” You’re gonna down the rest of your beer and get out of there! Before you can begin to chug, the bartender gives you a free beer…. “DAMMIT!” Alright after this free beer, you’re definitely-”WOOOOO!” jukebox girl just alerted you that they scored AGAIN?! “What the F- wings? Free? Why? What is going on?!”
NO! This is unacceptable! You hate this team and are leaving! Just pay your tab and go! “What do you mean no tab?” You ordered at least the one beer… “Whatever!” Their team just won, you’re pissed and you will never step foot in this bar again! “Free shots?!” Fine! You take your shot and tipsily walk home, feeling no pain.

About a week later, you find yourself BACK in the bar. You know they’re your rival team’s bar, but your friends wanted to meet there, so whatever, you can manage. Though this time, you’re a little less on edge while watching the game. It’s not as if you LIKE the other team they’re playing right now anyway. “Score!”. Beer. “Score!”. Wings. “Score!” Shots. All free! … Ok, I guess as long as they’re not playing YOUR team, you can handle coming back again.

It might not, and does not, work quite that fast. This is a truncated example of pairing something desirable with an animus event. The event becomes a little less likely to raise your hackles if it’s simultaneously and consistently paired with a reinforcer. Whether you actually like beer and wings or not, let’s assume that you do; Pairing your rival team with free wings and beer, will eventually neutralize your emotional response and make the affair more tolerable. Or hell, you might even start rooting for the team a little (just not while your friends are around).

So how does this relate to the training world? Well, first you need to decide what event/behavior/association you’d like to alter. Some examples may be: Your dog doesn’t like another dog. Your dog barks at the door. Your dog hates clowns. (You were wondering when that part of the title was gonna pop up, weren’t ya?)

If you find a salient enough reward and pair it during the chosen negative event, you will eventually see results. The trick is, the anxiety can’t be red-zone or “too far gone”. Meaning, you can’t surprise them with a clown then shove a treat down their throat. It has to be a slow introduction, catching the anxiety before it gets too far gone. Reassuring that bad things don’t happen when clowns are present (which is a total lie!). Admittedly, this technique works far better with aggression/agitation (football), than it does with fear anxiety (clowns). If you’re afraid of something, you’re less likely to be able to focus on rewards.

Example: You’re offered a piece of pie. “Great! Love pie!” Eat it. Done.
Now, let’s say that you are thrown into a pit with a bear and THEN someone offers you pie…. You are now no longer interested in the pie. No matter what flavor…. Actually maybe key lime, that stuff is delicious!

If your brain is unwilling to accept the reward, then it’s not doing any good. In fact, you could potentially be attaching negative feelings to THAT reward! Crazy right?! See a piece of pie and wet yourself!…. Not that I do that… just…. dammit!

“But if my dog is barking at another dog, I shouldn’t treat him, right? Otherwise, I’m teaching him that barking is what he’s supposed to do.”
Yes and no. It IS better to catch the behavior before it escalates, as to not compete with his overt reaction, but not detrimental if you don’t. More than likely his barking is an innate response to the antecedent. He’s not barking because you told him to, he’s barking because it’s natural. Unless you taught him specifically to bark at things, you’re in good shape. Regardless, this method is used to focus on the respondent behavior. Since the dog is barking because he’s irritated, if you fix the irritation, you fix the bark. If you purposefully trained the dog to bark when they see another dog, then yes, rewarding after the bark would, in fact, be reinforcing that behavior.

“Ok well, when my dog barks at another dog I just yell at them to stop and they listen. Why use another method?”
I get it, as with most things, results are what matter. If you prefer to yell at your dog, that’s your prerogative. BUT, I will tell you how you aren’t addressing the root of the problem and could potentially be making things worse…. In another post!

Boom! Adam out!

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