Counter conditioning and desensitization (CC&D) involves changing your pup’s association with a scary stimulus from negative to positive. The easiest way to give most pups a positive association is with very high-value, really yummy treats. I like to use chicken – canned, baked or boiled.
Here’s how CC&D works:
- Determine the distance at which your pup can be in the presence of the stimulus and be alert or wary but not extremely fearful. This is called the threshold distance.
- While holding your pup on leash, have a helper present the stimulus at this threshold distance. The instant your pup sees the stimulus, start feeding bits of chicken, non-stop.
- After several seconds, have the helper remove the stimulus, and stop feeding chicken.
- Keep repeating steps 1-3 until the presentation of the stimulus at that distance consistently causes your puppy to look at you with a happy smile and a “Yay! Where’s my chicken?” expression. This is a conditioned emotional response (CER) – your pup’s association with the stimulus at threshold distance is now positive instead of negative.
- Now increase the intensity of the stimulus. You can do that by decreasing the distance slightly; by increasing movement of the stimulus at the same distance (a child walking, skipping, or swinging her arms); by increasing the number of stimuli (two or three children, instead of one); increasing the visual “threat” (a tall man instead of a short one, or a man with a beard instead of a clean-shaven one); or by increasing volume (if it’s a stimulus that makes noise, such as a vacuum cleaner). I prefer to decrease distance first, in small increments, by moving the puppy closer to the location where the stimulus will appear, achieving your CER at each new distance, until your pup is happy to be very near to the non-moving stimulus, perhaps even sniffing or targeting to it.
- Then return to your original threshold distance and increase the intensity of your stimulus (move the vacuum a little; have two children instead of one; have the man put on a hat or a backpack), gradually decreasing distance and attaining CERs along the way, until your puppy is delighted to have the moderately intense stimulus in close proximity.
- Now, back to your original threshold distance, increase intensity again, by having your helper turn the vacuum on briefly, feed treats the instant it’s on, then turn it off and stop the treats.
- Repeat until you have the CER, then gradually increase the length of time you have your pup in the presence of the increased-intensity stimulus, until he’s happy (but not aroused) to have it present continuously.
- Begin decreasing distance in small increments, moving the pup closer to the stimulus (or the stimulus closer to your puppy), obtaining your CER consistently at each new distance.
- When your baby dog is happy to have the higher intensity stimulus close to him, you’re ready for the final phase. Return to the original distance and obtain your CER there with a full intensity stimulus – a running, moving vacuum; multiple children laughing and playing; a tall man with a beard wearing a hat, sunglasses, and a backpack. Then gradually decrease the distance until your dog is happy to be in the presence of your full-intensity stimulus. He now thinks the stimulus is a very good thing, as a reliable predictor of very yummy treats. In the case of a human stimulus, you can gradually work up to actual interaction with the human(s) at this stage, by having the person(s) drop treats as they walk by, then letting him take treats from their fingers – without direct eye contact, and eventually working up to normal interaction.