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Counterconditioning and desensitization importance

Counter-conditioning and desensitization in dogs

Counter-conditioning and desensitization in dogs

Counter conditioning and desensitization might be the key to breaking separation anxiety in dogs.

Dogs suffering from separation anxiety usually engage in unwanted behaviors like excessive vocalization, property destruction etc. when they are left alone. This causes distress to the dog as well as his or her guardian. Such behaviors usually end up with the dog back in the shelter. Although there is a limited amount of research in this field, it has been observed that dogs tend to develop such behavior if they are males, found or adopted from shelters, separated from their litter-mates before 60 days or lose a beloved family member to whom he or she was attached to. One of the prime ways to reduce separation anxiety in dogs is counter conditioning and desensitization.

Why should you look into counterconditioning and desensitization for separation anxiety treatment in dogs?

The most successful treatment so far for dog anxiety issues has been behavioral modification which specifically focuses on the method of counter conditioning and desensitization. This behavioral reprogramming can be supplemented with anxiety medications in the initial stages.

In case individual and personalized therapy from an animal behaviorist is not possible, the advice to the dog guardians should be very clear and precise.

The bond between a dog and his or her guardian is very strong. The emotional attachment between the dog and the guardian has been observed to be similar to the bond shared by a human adult and his or her children. Most dogs are emotionally very attached to their guardians. However, anxious dogs exhibit a higher attachment level towards their guardians. Such dogs may display behavioral problems in the absence of their guardians like



If the intensity of the inappropriate behavior increases over the duration of separation., It might be hypothesized that the dog is bored. However, if the dog is suffering from separation anxiety, then the inappropriate behavior will reach its peak within a few minutes of the guardian’s absence. Such dogs will also show excessive excitement in presence of the guardians.

Separation related behavioral problems in dogs have been reported in about 20% of the total domesticated canine population The diagnosis of these behavioral problems has always been indirect, for example disruption of furniture or reports of excessive barking from the neighbors. Such dogs can not only destroy the house, they can injure themselves in the process. Reports have previously described a dog who tore his tongue, broke his teeth and suffered bruises and cuts from face to feet in an attempt to escape in the absence of his guardians.

Treatment options for dog anxiety

Some authors have recommended to confine dogs who suffer from anxiety to a crate in the absence of the guardians. As per the authors, dogs accustomed to the crate are less likely to engage in stress-related behavioral problems compared to dogs who have a free access to the entire house. However, confining a dog who suffers from separation anxiety, can lead to an increase in lip licking, a behavior which is consistent with stress. Such dogs may also injure themselves while trying to escape from the crate.

Behavioral reprogramming

Systematic desensitization is a behavioral reprogramming method which has been found to have success in reducing or completely eliminating the separation induced behavioral problems of dogs. This method is similar to the method used for treatment of phobias in case of humans.

During the initial stages of this method, the dog is exposed to different periods of the guardians absence. Since the unwanted behavior starts within 3 to 5 minutes of guardian’s departure, the initial separation time is kept very short [a few seconds]. The guardian is advised to stay away for a few seconds, come back, praise the dog for good behavior and offer treats. 

Once the dog gets acclimatized to the absence of his or her guardian for a few seconds, the duration of separation is increased. Presenting a short guardian absence time ensures that the dog will remain non-anxious even when the guardian has gone for longer periods of time. The length of separation is gradually increased from seconds to minutes to hours until the desired length of time is reached during which the guardian is going to be absent on a regular basis.

Systematic desensitization is often accompanied with counterconditioning. Counterconditioning focuses on changing the aggressive, fearful or anxious reaction of the dog towards a more relaxed and pleasant one. This is done by forming a positive association between the presence or sight of the feared person, place, animal, object or situation with something that the dog loves and prefers. Eventually the dog will learn to associate the feared object, person or place with something positive. In case of dogs suffering from separation anxiety, counterconditioning focuses on associating the dogs alone time with a reward.

To develop this positive association, the guardian must provide something that would keep the dog busy for at least 20 to 30 minutes when the guardian leaves the house. For example you can give your dog a Kong stuffed with delicious treats which would take him at least 30 minutes to finish. You can even freeze the Kong with the food inside so that it takes longer for your dog to get all of it out and eat.

Always remember to remove the special toy or treat once you come back home. This would teach the dog that he will get the special treat he loves so much when his guardians are not around. This would eliminate the fear of being alone and replace it with the excitement of enjoying his treats.

Keep in mind that this technique will work only for dogs who suffer from mild levels of separation anxiety. If your dog has high levels of separation anxiety, then he or she will not eat in the absence of his or her guardians.

Treatment for moderate to severe separation anxiety in dogs

If your dog suffers from a moderate or severe case of separation anxiety, treatment would require a complex counterconditioning and desensitization program. For such dogs, the initial steps need to be very small, no sudden leaps in training should be done, lots of praise should be awarded for small achievements and finally a lot of patience is required from the guardian. The initial duration of separation should be very small so that the dog does not get anxious. The separation duration need to be increased at a very gradual pace spread out over a few months of daily sessions.

The following are the steps which are to be followed for desensitization and counterconditioning in case of a moderate to severely anxious dog. However, it is preferable to have the support of an animal behaviorist when attempting to ease the separation anxiety of a severely anxious dog.

Note: fear of any kind must be avoided during the training sessions as your dog can sense fear and might become even more frightened than before. This will lead to the entire procedure backfiring. The treatment progress must change as per your dog’s reaction. Since the interpretation of these reactions might be difficult for a dog guardian, the help of an animal behaviorist is highly encouraged.

Step one: predeparture

Dogs are highly sensitive creatures. If you have a routine, your dog is aware of your routine more than you are. Thus, when you get ready, your dog knows you will be leaving him or her. For example, your dog might start to pant, whine or pace when he notices you getting ready, wearing your shoes, picking up your bag, fetching your car keys etc. If the guardian becomes upset at this point, it triggers the dogs separation anxiety. If you do not notice these telltale signs of anxiety in your dog when you’re getting ready then you can skip this step and move on to step two.

Treatment approach

The aim of this treatment for your dog is that getting ready, picking up the car keys or taking your coat does not mean that you WILL go out. You can reprogram your dog’s brain by following the rituals of getting ready but not actually leaving. You can get ready and then watch TV or you can get ready and sit and read a magazine etc. You need to do this multiple times a day for a few weeks at least. Eventually your dog will learn that getting ready does not necessarily mean that his or her guardian is going to leave him or her alone.

Remember that your dog is very smart. Thus, you will have to do these exercises multiple times a day for many weeks until your dog is completely desensitized to you getting ready and stop showing any kind of anxious reaction. Once you have achieved this, you can move on to the next step.

Step two: graduated absence/departure

If your dog does not show an anxious behavior when you are getting ready, you can skip step one and start from this step. The aim of this step is to show your dog that there is nothing to be upset about in your absence. The primary focus of this step is to go out of sight but then come back to your dog before he or she gets anxious.

This exercise can be started right in your house. Ask your dog to sit and stay or lay down. Go into the next room and come back within a few seconds. The aim is to come back before your dog starts to feel anxious. Very gradually, increase the duration of the time you stay in the other room or on the other side of the door. Once your dog gets used to you being away for a little while, you can start to work on getting your dog used to your predeparture cues for example, ask your dog to stay, pick up your keys that your coat and go into the other room. Come back within a few minutes.

Proceed to doing this out of sight exercises at your bedroom door and eventually at your house main door. If you’re used to leaving from the front door, do this exercise at the back door of your house first. Eventually when you do this exercise using the front door of your house, your dog would have gotten used to the stay game.

Once you’ve trained your dog to stay without getting anxious for 5 to 10 seconds, bring in the counterconditioning. For counterconditioning, as I mentioned before, you can use a Kong toy stuffed with frozen treats. This frozen treat will also work as a cue for safety telling your dog that it is safe to be left alone.

During your practice sessions, it is very important that you keep an appropriate length of time between each training session so that your dog is completely calm before you leave again. If your dog is still excited from your return and you leave again, he will already be in an anxious state. This anxiousness may make him less tolerable when you leave the next time, which can make the anxiety issue worse instead of making it better.

Behave in a very quiet and calm manner when leaving and coming.

There is no standard timeline as to how much time it will take for your dog to get used to your absence. Do not go from one step to the next too quickly. Most dog guardians want the treatment to progress fast, thus they land of exposing their dogs to longer durations within a very short time which worsens the symptoms of anxiety in the dogs. To prevent such a mistake, watch for stress signs from your dog like pacing, trembling, yawning, panting, salivating etc.

In the initial stages of training, your separation should be increased by only a few seconds after every few sessions. Once you hit the 40 minute mark, i.e. once your dog can tolerate 40 minutes of your absence, you can increase the departure duration by five minutes every few sessions. Since the anxiety of dogs is observed to reach its peak within the first 40 minutes, once you have reached this threshold, and eventually 90 minutes time, your dog is probably ready to handle 4 to 5 hours of your absence.

If you conduct several daily sessions during weekends and two sessions during the week, you can accomplish the complete training within a few weeks.

During the separation anxiety treatment, if possible, try to have an alternate arrangement so that your dog never really feels alone

Along with all the above-mentioned training, there are a few things which need to be followed when greeting your dog. When you’re leaving just pat your dog on the head, say goodbye and leave. When you come back, say hello to your dog and do not pay him or her any more attention unless you notice that your dog is completely calm and relaxed. To help your dog relax you can also revise some of the training with him, like stay, roll over etc.

Should you crate your dog?

If your dog knows that the crate is a safe place to go, then creating your dog is the way to go. However, some anxious dogs may see the crate as an confined space from where they need to escape. Such dogs might even self injure while trying to escape from the crate. You need to understand your dog’s behavior and make the decision of whether to create or not. If using a crate is not an option for you, you can try confining your dog behind a baby gate in one room.

Always remember, a physically and mentally tired dog does not have much energy to spend in being anxious in the absence of his or her guardian. Thus, always give your dog plenty of exercise on a daily basis and specially before you leave. Give your dog puzzle toys to play with when he or she is alone.

Make your dog hunt for his or her meals. You can even give treats to your dog in the form of a treasure hunt. To know more about homemade treasure hunt toys, click here.


Does your dog suffer from separation anxiety? After staying with your dog 24/7 during the lock down, how did your dog behave when you went back to work? Have you tried to use counter conditioning and desensitization to help your pup? Do you have some any other suggestion which can be used to desensitize dogs suffering from separation anxiety? If yes, then please share them with all of us.

Thank you for reading.

See you in my next blog post




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