Desensitization & Counter Conditioning
Desensitization is a process in which we reduce the strength of a response to a certain stimulus. For example, if your dog responds fearfully to the site of another dog, by desensitizing your dog to other dogs we will reduce the fearful response.
Desensitization works by gradually exposing the dog to low levels of the fearful stimulus.
In our example, we may let the dog see other dogs from a distance long enough so they do not show fear. Gradually, we will let the other dogs get closer and closer as long as the dog shows no fear.
Desensitization is usually accompanied by another process called counter conditioning.
Counter conditioning is really nothing more than classical conditioning. The big difference is that the dog already has an association between 2 events so changing this association and creating a new one requires a lot of repetitions.
Think of it this way. Letís say Pavlov would have done the experiment a bit differently. Letís say Pavlov would have started by associating the ring of a bell to a painful electric shock. The dog would have known that a bell ring means an electric shock and would have displayed fearful or aggressive behavior when the bell rang.
Now, after hundreds of repetitions and after this association is in place Pavlov would go ahead and start associating the same bell ring with food. Pavlov would have tried to counter condition the dog to the bell ring. It meant pain, and we want it to mean food from now on.
How long would it have taken to accomplish that? I canít answer this specifically but it would have taken a long time and many repetitions.
Back to our example: we want to counter condition our fearful dog to accept other dogs. By combining counter conditioning and desensitization we can accomplish that. We will start exposing our dog to other dogs at a very low level Ė in this case a far enough distance (thatís the desensitization part). In addition, we will give the dog very tasty treats when he sees the other dogs (thatís the counter conditioning part). Gradually, we can convince the dog that other dogs mean good treats.