Counter-Conditioning and Desensitization: a step-by-step guide

Guide to dog counterconditioning and systematic desensitisation
By Laure-Anne Visele, written Jan 2013

Now you’ve done your homework, you know why Rover lunges at joggers/other dogs. Next step: let’s get it to stop!

(courtesy of

Step 1: Take stock

What contributes to sending Rover ‘over-threshold’? Make a list of all the elements (dimensions) that make him worse for each of his aversions.


e.g. Dimension list for jogger aversion

  • Distance: Dog gets vigilant around 7 meters, lunges around 3 meters from jogger.
  • Gender: Worse with men
  • Jogger position: Worse when jogger facing dog
  • Daytime: Worse at night
  • Path width: Much worse on narrow paths
  • Path shape: Much better with sinewy path. Worse with straight paths
  • etc.

e.g. Dimension list for  aversion to other dogs

  • Size: Worse with large dog
  • Boisterousness: Worse with ranbunctious dogs
  • Distance: Starts freezing within 15 meters. Snarls and lunges within 5 meters.
  • Gender: Better with neutered than entire dogs
  • etc.

A well-documented starting point allows you to break down the problem into more easily managed components, and it gives the bottom bar against which to assess progress.

Step 2: Look ahead

Picture what you are hoping to achieve in tangible terms: e.g.

  • Rover may never tolerate being hugged by a jogger, but we could aim for sitting relaxed when the jogger runs past two meters away.
  • He may never like on-leash hello’s, but we could aim for calmly passing by other on-leash dogs on the same pavement.

Write these goals down somewhere: it will encourage you when you’re hitting a slow corner, and it will give you a top bar against which to assess progress.

Step 3: Wave that Dumbo feather

Pick a any distinctive item of clothing (say a hat), and wear this during each session, and only for these sessions. The hat is your contract: a pledge that nothing scary can happen as long as you’re wearing it. The dog will come to see the hat as a Dumbo feather: a magic safety clue.

Step 4: Climb up

Pick a dimension to tackle –say, distance– and work your way up for that dimension (e.g. from 12 to 2 meters).

Keep all other dimensions at their easiest level — e.g. only women joggers; wide, sinewy paths; during daytime; etc.


First session: as soon as the dog notices the (woman) jogger at a distance:

1/ Say ‘look at that” (he looks at the jogger); and

2/ Give him a treat and retreat off the path (caaaaaalmly, no rush)

Repeat this a few times, each time allowing the jogger to get closer before retreating (always taking the dog away before he gets intense). If you see a man-jogger, don’t draw your dog’s attention to him. Just calmly retreat off the path and distract him. We’ll get to men later.

When reducing the distance, you’ll be surfing that fine line between close enough that the dog notices, but not so close that he gets stressed out. It’s called ‘keeping the dog sub-threshold’. Push it too hard and you’ll only reinforce the aversion.

Once you’ve reached a nice distance with women joggers, start over from the longest distance (and in day-time; wide/sinewy paths; etc.) with men-joggers. Then work your way up all other dimensions (e.g. working in slightly straighter/narrower paths).

If you want your dog to REALLY like joggers, you could ask them to stop next to you, look at the dog, toss treats (caaalmly) and move on. After a few tries, increase the length of time the jogger stays around. One caveat: the jogger may not pet the dog!

Step 5: Dealing with the unpredictable…

A nasty encounter could set you back weeks, if not permanently, so:

  • Train in a wooded area so you can take the dog off the path and out of sight easily.
  • Train where only leashed dogs are allowed.
  • Do not use the hat, if you’re at all unsure.
  • Tie a yellow ribbon to your dog’s leash. It signals that your dog needs space.

Step 6: Keeping up good habits

After a few short sessions several times a day, you should start seeing a change within a couple of weeks. Once you’ve reached your ultimate goal (likely a few more weeks), start thinning out the treats (gradually) from once per jogger to only for the occasional jogger. Do some refresh sessions if things are regressing.

To fade away the training hat, just work your way up the hierarchies again — this time without the hat.

Getting extra help

If you’re not getting anywhere, don’t let it escalate. Contact a specialist trainer instead.

Actions speak louder than words

Many people ask me: “How do you make sure that you’re not rewarding the lunging?” I think this video will answer that. Watch this guy being counter-conditioned from his previous fear of being blown in the face.

And here’s another demo.

Your comments

I always love to hear from you, Mr./Mrs. Reader. If you have a comment, I would welcome your insights/input/experience. Particularly if:

  • Your dog has gone through D&C protocol. How did it work out? Were the results dramatic? What did you use it for?
  • What other treatments had you used before being advised D&C?
  • Have you been using D&C in conjunction with medication?

Further reading

Dogs and society

Dog training and behaviour

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  1. Annieke Lamers
    Posted 15 October 2013 at 22:01 | Permalink

    I’m working on human reactivity with my 11-month-old Malinois. She barks like a madwoman when people show any kind of interest in us/her, and even when we pass close by talking people. When people approach us and look at us, she barks. When people do that AND talk, she’s worse. Men or women, doesn’t matter.

    What I’m doing as of today, is click and treat EVERY TIME she looks toward a person, whether this person is just walking by, running, coming toward us, cycling past, stopping to talk to us, talking on a cellphone or to another person, etc. I don’t stop clicking and treating until she stops orienting toward the person.

    After ONE session with people that stopped to talk to us (a man, woman, and child, standing on either side of us about 1-2 meters away) and another 30-minute session clicking and treating every person that came past us, the next time people approached us (about 2 hours after the 30-minute session), she looked at them and then at me, clearly asking for her treats, instead of getting fixated on those people and gearing up to bark. This was in the dark, 2 dark-skinned men, and they were talking; that’s 3 triggers, and she was eagerly playing our game; look at people, get clicks and treats.

    She’s a lot better with kids because I’ve done the same thing with them (look at kid, get clicks and treats) when she was younger, because she started chasing running/squealing kids. Before I did that, she also used to bark when kids looked at/stared at her.

    • Posted 15 October 2013 at 22:07 | Permalink

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Annieke!

      Clicker training is a nice twist too, as I suspect it makes it all the more effective.

      Such great strides in hardly any time.

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