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Reducing fear and anxiety - desensitization, counter-conditioning and flooding

Counter-conditioning and desensitization

Counter-conditioning and desensitization are powerful ways to change behavior. They are often used in combination in order to reduce a certain form of arousal associated with a particular situation. This arousal may take the form of fear, excitement or aggression. Desensitization provides a means of safely exposing the pet to the stimulus. Counter-conditioning is used to get the pet to perform the desired alternative behavior.

What is counter-conditioning?

Dogs Attack

Counter-conditioning is a process of teaching a different task or behavior. than the one that was previously occurring in a situation. For example, a dog lunges at the window when the postman walks by. The new task will be sitting quietly. So, we "condition" a new response, sitting, that is "counter" to what the animal was doing previously, which was lunging. In order to teach the new behavior, practice the new task in a location and situation which does not stimulate the animal to engage in the behavior. you wish to change.

Sometimes the term 'counter-commanding' is used when the pet is commanded to perform a previously trained behavior. Instead of trying to get the dog to sit when the postman comes by, practice getting the dog to sit by the window when no one is there. The dog is able to learn the new task more effectively without distractions, when the postman is not present.

What is desensitization?

Desensitization is a gradual exposure to situations or stimuli that would previously bring on the undesirable behavior., but at a level so low that there is no unwanted response. As the animal experiences the stimulus, but does not respond in the undesirable way, the animal becomes "less sensitive" to the stimulus, and the undesirable response is eventually eliminated. The key to effective desensitization is to design a stimulus gradient that the pet can be exposed to gradually. Progressively more intense levels of the stimulus are presented.

How might these techniques be used in a training situation?

Take the example of the postman. Begin by getting the dog to sit quietly by the window. Use food as an inducement for the dog to respond, and as a reward for performance. When the dog anticipates a food reward, the "mood" of the dog is usually happy, relaxed and not anxious or aggressive. These are behaviours that are incompatible with the behavior. you wish to change, in this case lunging at the window at the postman. This is counter-conditioning. It may take days or weeks for the dog to learn how to perform this task reliably on command. During that time phase out food rewards so that the dog does the task equally well with or without food.

Dog At Window

Next, train your pet to perform the desired behavior. in the presence of the postman. Desensitize the dog, by presenting versions of the stimuli associated with the postman, which will allow your pet to remain still, sitting relaxed and happy, not anxious or aggressive. For example, start by having someone the dog knows, walk by the window. The dog gets to practice the good behavior. when it is easy. Repeat this many times so that the dog does it reliably. Gradually progress to stimuli that more closely resemble the real life situation. Perhaps have the dog sit by the window when the postman is down the street. If the dog could do this well several times, try when the postman is across the street. It may be necessary to take the dog outside. Proceed slowly, so that the dog learns how to perform the desired behavior. over and over before being challenged with the real thing, the postman delivering the post to your door.

What other ways are there to design a stimulus gradient for desensitization?

In the example of the postman the stimulus gradient was to begin the training with a family member and then progress with the postman at varying distances. Stimuli for desensitization can be arranged from mildest to strongest in a number of ways. For example, begin desensitization from a distance and move progressively closer as the pet is successfully counter-conditioned. Sound stimuli can be presented in varying intensities from quietly to loud. A pet that is fearful or aggressive towards a man with a beard might be desensitized to young boys, older boys, men with no beards, a family member with a costume beard, familiar men with beard costumes then men with beards. Distance can also be varied. Dogs that are aggressive or fearful as strangers arrive at the front door, could be desensitized and counter-conditioned to the doorbell being rung by a family member, a family member arriving in a car, a family member walking up the front walkway, a stranger walking along the path in front of the home (while the dog remains in the doorway or on the porch), a familiar person entering the home, and finally a stranger at the front door.

In order for desensitization and counter-conditioning programs to be successful, it is necessary to have good control of the pet, a strongly motivating reward, good control of the stimulus, and a well-constructed desensitization gradient. A lead and head collar is often the best way of ensuring control over the dog. Each session should be carefully planned. Pets that are punished for inappropriate behavior. (fear, aggressive displays) during the retraining program will become more anxious in association with the stimulus. Owners that try to reassure their pets or calm them with food or toys, While they are acting fearfully, will reinforce the behavior. and so the problem will get worse. Also, if a pet can successfully threaten or respond inappropriately to the stimulus (person, other animal) and it disappears for whatever reason then the behavior. is further reinforced.

What are flooding and exposure techniques?

Another technique for reducing certain forms of undesired arousal, like fearfulness, is to expose the pet continuously to the stimulus until he or she settles down (habituates). This technique will only work if the stimulus is not associated with any adverse consequence, i.e. the undesired response is completely inappropriate to the situation from the pet's point of view. The pet must also be exposed for as long as is needed until the pet calms down. Once the pet is exposed, the stimulus must not leave or be removed until the pet calms down. Similarly the pet must not be removed or allowed to retreat until it habituates. Once the pet settles, reinforcement can be given to ensure that the ultimate result is a positive association with the stimulus.

Reward Dog

The pet must not be rewarded until it calms and settles down as this would serve to reward the inappropriate behavior. Owner intervention or punishment must not be utilized as this would lead to an unpleasant association with the stimulus. Since exposure must continue until the pet settles down, flooding must be used with care and consideration for the well-being of all involved in the training program. It is most successful for fears that are not too intense. Beginning with a somewhat lower or muted stimulus may be best. In practice, keeping the pet in a cage or crate or keeping a dog on a lead and halter during exposure to the stimulus, will prevent escape and should prevent injury to the stimulus (person or pet).

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