Counterconditioning is basically changing the way a dog feels about something. For example, if he is afraid of nail clippers, you would show him the nail clippers and give him the best treats. Eventually, he’ll see the clippers and start to feel good because he knows they mean good treats are coming. The dog does not have to do anything to get the good things; the nail clippers in sight mean good things happen. Here’s another way to explain it: Let’s say you are afraid of spiders. There is one secured in a glass tank (absolutely no way it can get out) covered with a towel. We lift the towel and each time we do, a hundred dollar bill drops into your lap. No spider, no money. Yes spider, yes money. Soon you will start to feel okay about seeing a spider (at least one safely contained). Who knows? You might even start to like them!
Desensitization means exposing the dog to whatever scares him at a level so low that he isn’t afraid, and then gradually increasing the exposure to normal levels. Using the nail clippers again: First, you’d hold them up across the room. Here’s where CC and DS will work together – the quickest route would be to also add great treats when the clippers are held up across the room. Next, once the dog is happy to see them across the room, you’ll move them a bit closer, give a treat, and so on and so on. Eventually, you can touch the dog’s leg with them, then their foot, then toe, then add some pressure. All the while, they are getting the best treats. You are counterconditioning as you desensitize.
Putting it all together from a human perspective with the spider in the glass tank: We’ll start by having the spider across the room and lift the towel. You get a hundred dollar bill. Once you are okay with that, we move the spider tank closer, lift the towel, and you get another hundred. And so on.
These usually will not be quick fixes. You’ve been afraid of spiders for years and rationally you know it can’t get out of the tank. But it will take a while for you to be comfortable near a spider. Dogs probably can’t rationalize that the nail clippers aren’t going to kill them. And remember: if the fear is strong enough, the thinking part of the brain stops working. If the dog won’t take treats, the fear is too intense. You’ll need to take a step back. Make the scary thing less scary; maybe move it even farther away.
CC and DS will work with everything from spiders to nail clippers to vacuum cleaners to getting into the car. CC, DS, and a lot of patience are usually the answer for your dog to overcome fear.