What do you think of this video? (click to play)
It shows a dog learning not to chase chickens.
The procedure that is applied to achieve this is called desensitisation and counter conditioning (DS/CC). What a mouthful! In human psychology it’s usually called gradual exposure and relaxation therapy.
Desensitisation = to make less sensitive; to reduce anxiety, fear or frustration. Done by altering the distance from the trigger (chickens in this example), the duration of the trigger (how long does it last?) or the level of distraction that the trigger presents.
Counter conditioning = to change the dog’s learned response from one thing (chase chooks) to something else (stay calm and relaxed and respond to cues from owner). Done by providing something biologically important such as food (treats), a nice neck scratch, or a play session with toys.
DS/CC utilises the neural (or synaptic) plasticity of the dog’s brain (means that when brain cells have developed into set “pathways”, these pathways can be weakened/”undone”, and new pathways can be developed.)
In this video example the aim is to weaken the brain pathway where the dog has learned to chase small things with feathers and two legs, and to strengthen a new pathway which is “be calm, attend to Dad and ignore the chickens”.
When we talk about changing the strength of the brain pathways we use the analogy of changing the deep tractor tyre tracks of the unwanted behaviour into thin little sheep tracks.
Eventually we want the tractor tyres tracks to wither away to nothing at all, so the unwanted behaviour has become a thing of the past.
And to develop the new behaviour that we do want, we need to start new little sheep track neural pathways that will grow into new deep “tyre tracks in the brain” that result in calm, relaxed, attentive behaviour.
In DS/CC we are usually trying to change a negative emotional response from fearful, anxious, frustrated, sometimes even grief, to a positive emotional response of relaxation, pleasure or play.
It’s often used to treat unwanted behaviours that have elements of aggression, frustration, fear or phobia.
In this video example the owner is trying to change a natural, evolutionary behaviour of chasing chickens.
The positive emotions involved are excitement and play. There is also frustration at times when the dog is prevented from getting at the chickens when she wants to.
All these emotions need to change to greater relaxation, over-riding the desire to have fun chasing the chickens.
Relaxation helps the dog to listen to the owner and respond to any cues.
Cue = a request for a behaviour; the owner asks the dog to do something using a consistent word that the dog has learned.
When the dog feels relaxed, she can’t at the same time be wanting to excitedly chase chickens.
DS/CC is a tricky process to get right, it needs you to tune in to your dog’s body language and read their emotional state.
You need to know when to ask for a bit more (“can you sit near the chickens for 2 seconds more?) and when to back off (give treats and move further away.)
Every dog is different and every dog needs a different DS/CC programme based on its individual behaviour.
If you have a dog that chases people, cyclists, cars, cats, chickens, horses and you want to change that, you’ll need to use DS/CC – change excited chase to calm and responsive to you.
If you have a dog that barks at the door or jumps up at visitors, you’ll need to use DS/CC – change excitement to calm and responsive to you.
If you have a dog with separation anxiety, you’ll need to use DS/CC – change emotional loss and distress to calm relaxation.
If you have a dog that guards food, socks or their place on the sofa you’ll need to use DS/CC – change fear of loss to calm relaxation.
If you have a dog that has a phobia of car travel you’ll have to use DS/CC – change fear to relaxation.
If you have a dog that behaves aggressively to other dogs or people you’ll have to use DS/CC – change fear to calm relaxation and responsive to you.
Get in touch if you would like to find out more about desensitisation and counter conditioning! At firstname.lastname@example.org