Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Systematic desensitization and counterconditioning are two common treatments for fears, anxiety, phobias and aggression—basically any behavior problem that involves arousal or emotional reaction. When the problem is rooted in how a dog or cat feels about a particular thing, it isn't enough to just teach him a different behavior—like sit instead of lunge and growl. What's most effective is treatment that will change the way he feels about something. This treatment will eliminate the underlying reason for the behavior problem in the first place.

Desensitization and counterconditioning are treatments that were developed by psychologists. Usually done at the same time, these treatments are used to help both people and animals with fears and phobias. They're effective but somewhat complex. For animals, they involve patient training several times a day, progressing in small, carefully planned increments. It usually takes several months before results are seen.

Because treatment must progress and change according to the pet's reactions, and because these reactions can be difficult to read and interpret, systematic desensitization and counterconditioning are most effective under the guidance of a trained professional, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you choose to hire a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) because you can't find a behaviorist in your area, be sure that the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience using these treatments, since this expertise is not required for CPDT certification.


Desensitization means to make less sensitive. Its goal is to eliminate or reduce the exaggerated, emotion-based reaction that an animal has to a specific thing—be it other animals, kinds of people (like children or men in uniform), certain places or events, or certain noises. Systematic desensitization is a structured plan. It involves a gradual process of exposing an animal to a less intense version of the thing or event he fears, in such a way that his fear isn't triggered.

Desensitization starts with showing or exposing an animal to a weak, less threatening version of the thing he fears or dislikes. We weaken the thing or event by making it smaller, slower, shorter lasting, farther away, less noisy, or still rather than moving. Over time, as the pet habituates at that low exposure, we gradually make the thing (person, animal, place, object, noise, event, etc.) stronger again by, for example, bringing it closer, increasing its volume or having it move. So a systematic desensitization plan starts with exposure to the least scary version of the feared thing and gradually moves to stronger versions until full or normal exposure is reached.

For example, let's say your cat is afraid of male visitors to your home. You might first expose your cat to a man who's far away and standing still—exposure that your cat notices but without feeling scared. Over time, you would gradually bring the man closer but still make him less threatening by asking him not to look directly at your cat and not to reach out toward her—something that, again, your cat can notice without fear. The final goal is to have your cat comfortable around men who are moving around normally in your house, close up and greeting, petting or playing with her.