Systematic Desensitization, Counterconditioning and Flooding

This is a nice follow-up to last week’s classical conditioning, because really, what is classical conditioning without systematic desensitization and counterconditioning?  Let’s find out!

 Systematic Desensitization

This term is pretty easy to figure out – gradually making something less scary, in a methodical manner.  Because we cannot instruct our dogs to imagine the scary stimulus in conjunction with their happy places, we have to expose them to that stimulus in a manner that does not elicit (or at least minimizes) the undesired emotional response.  Often, this response may be fear, or panic, or anxiety – we don’t really know because Rover can’t tell us in English.  However, he is performing often embarrassing behaviors – lunging, whining, barking, teeth showing, growling, and it’s a good bet that there is an emotion behind those behaviors that feels awful – I would even say that emotion may feel aversive.   We then present the dog with a pleasure eliciting stimuli when exposed to the scary stimulus and while keeping the dog as relaxed as possible, we may see the emotional shift from fear/ panic/ anxiety to happy/ relaxed.  How do we know this shift has occurred?  The answer is in the dog’s body language, such as relaxed muscles, pupils that are appropriately dilated considering the light conditions, the ability to perform well known learned behaviors, such as sit and touch, and tail position (compared to what is the normal baseline for that specific dog).


Counterconditioning is the principle underlying systematic desensitization – changing that conditioned emotional response from one we don’t like to one that we like.  Sometimes we call counterconditioning reciprocal inhibition – that sounds sexy, doesn’t it?  This term describes the situation in which a relaxed response was created in the presence of of the scary stimulus at a low level of intensity.


I often think of flooding when I watch Fear Factor (remember that show?  It’s back!).  We all know I have some anxiety/ fear/ panic around snakes, and a popular contest on Fear Factor is to stick the contestant in a coffin like container while snakes are poured over him or her.  I kid you not – typing this gives me sweaty armpits, fuzzy eye sight, and my stomach is churning.  Some people say that this would get me over my fear of snakes in no time, and we often hear those same ideas applied to dogs  – do you have a dog that is fearful of other dogs?  Take him to the dog park at peak hours and let him learn a thing or two!  Don’t let him leave until he’s learned he’s not top dog!  Flooding involves exposing the dog (or me) to the scary stimulus at full intensity until the undesirable conditioned response is extinguished or escape behavior declines.

Let’s say I take Shorty to the dog park to help her get over her fear of other dogs – we’ll stay until she starts to behave herself or until she stops running away.   I’d have to keep her on leash so that she can’t escape.  We get there, and of course, dogs run over to greet her.  Shorty is going to do one of two things – either give offensive distance increasing signals (lunging, teeth showing, growling) or defensive distance increasing signals (tail tucked all the way to her tummy, decreasing her height, lip licking, and turning her head away).  Either way, she’s saying “dogs, please go away, I’m scared!”  But we stay, and stay, and stay.  She’ll try to slip her collar and hide behind me, and she’ll pull to towards the entrance to the park, but let’s say I’m going to stay until she stops snarking &/ or crouching.  Then we go home, and I guarantee she’ll be exhausted – being in distress is exhausting.

The next day, I decide we’re going to go to the dog park – I’ve flooded her, she’s learned right?  Yesterday, she stopped trying to escape, crouch and snark.  However, I know my Shorty, and on the way to the park, she puts the brakes on – no way is she walking any further.  She may even flop over on her side – passive resistance at its best – and I’d have to literally drag her to the dog park.  Why doesn’t she want to go?  She’s associated the park with a great deal of terror (according to her perception).    Classical conditioning strikes again!  Let’s say I get her to the park, and then the next day, when I get out her leash, she runs and hides in the house.  Why? Shorty has now associated the leash with going for walks which end at the dog park which is terrifying!

Is this fallout going to occur with every dog?  No, but why risk it?  I get much further ahead by walking with Shorty up to 100 feet from the dog park entrance, having her see the dogs to get some dehydrated salmon skin, and then go home for the day.  Next day, maybe we’ll get to 98 feet from the dog park entrance, and by day four or five, she’s going to be pulling me towards the dog park entrance – maybe we’ll get to 40 feet away from it.  Why?  Shorty is feeling relaxed, and the dog park is becoming not so scary, thanks to counterconditioning and systematic desensitization.  Yes, it’s a process that is going to take time, but I much prefer the decreased stress on Shorty and myself, not to mention the dogs at the receiving end of her undesired behaviors.

(Please note: I would never flood Shorty nor take her to the dog park.  It is just used as an example to try and illustrate learning theory).

Here, Val receives peanut butter for walking past stationary dogs at a 15-20 foot distance.



Posted in Uncategorized.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Training | To Become Whole Again: Kira's Puppy Mill Journey

Leave a Reply