Changing Behavior: Using Desensitization, Counter Conditioning and Counter Commanding to Modify Fear and/or Reactivity in Dogs

We have already discussed fear and reactivity in our dogs, how it develops and how they may demonstrate it. Now we want to look at what we can do to modify this behaviour. Desensitization and counter conditioning are the most commonly used techniques when treating reactivity and fears in our dogs. Within our Reactive urbanK9 program, we also combine this with counter commanding to work at truly changing the dog’s behaviour vs just stopping it.


This is the gradual exposure to whatever may trigger a reactive or fearful response. Within a treatment plan, we present this trigger to a dog below threshold, which is at a level that does not cause the dog to react or try to flee. They may still show signs of stress, but they can focus on you and will still take the food.

For example, let’s say we are working with a dog that reacts by barking and lunging when he sees people while he is on leash. We would set this up by having a dog on leash and having a person come within sight at a distance that the dogs is not reacting. Using desensitization, we would gradually decrease the distance to this person as long as the dog is comfortable.

It is important to create a list of steps of the easiest to the most difficult interactions with the trigger for your dog. In this example it may be the distance to the people then if they are standing or moving. And you may work first with known people, then female strangers, then males and then children.

Counter Conditioning

Dogs learn through association; one event predicts another event and the dog develops a response to the first event. This may be that your dog begins to wag his tail and wiggle with excitement when he sees you get out his leash. Or like our example above, he barks and lunges when he sees another person while on leash. Counter conditioning is the process in which we change a dog’s association to a specific trigger.

For our dog in the above example, he currently associates the presence of a person with a negative and responds by barking and lunging. He does this to scare the person and learns that this often works as he can make the scary person go away. Counter conditioning changes the emotional response which is a powerful tool. Through using desensitization and counterconditioning, we will work at teaching the dog that new people mean good things to him.

We do this by keeping the person at a distance that the dog is not reacting or trying to flee. When the dog sees the other person, we provide the dog with a food reward. This is going to be repeated until your dog is eagerly anticipating the food reward whenever a new person comes into sight. The distance to the person will slowly be decreased, and then you will work through men and then children. During the foundation training, if your dog reacts, it means we have moved ahead too quickly, so need to increase the distance. No good comes of rehearsing your dog’s reactivity or fear and it can even make it worse.

Counter Commanding

A critical part of modifying a dog’s behaviour concerns is to show them what to do instead. In our example, a dog responds to the sight of a person by barking and lunging. We want them to instead look to us (auto watch) and eventually enjoy interactions with people. We must always be working the dog below threshold so that they can still think and perform the auto watch. In our example, we would have a person come into sight, our dog would look to us, and receive a food reward. This involves desensitization (gradual exposure), counter conditioning (the dog receives a food reward which creates a happy emotional response) and counter commanding (the dog looks to us instead of reacting).

Changing the Behaviour vs Just Stopping It

Punishment will stop a behaviour from happening if it is aversive enough to the dog. Not only is there a risk at worsening a behaviour from punishment, it does not modify the behaviour. In our example, if our dog received a collar correction or was pinned every time he reacted at a person, he may stop reacting. However, we have likely made his negative association to people even worse and we are not showing him what to do instead. By following the steps outlined in our urbanK9 program and using the above techniques, you will teach your dog what to do instead, all while ensuring you change their emotional response. This is what is needed to truly change behaviour and create long lasting, reliable responses from our dogs.


Do you want to help your dog work through their fear and/or reactivity concerns? Check out our Reactive urbank9 program page to find out how to get started!