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Dog training lingo - Habituation, desensitisation & Counterconditioning 

This breakdown clarifies the distinctions between these techniques and how each one is applied to modify a dog's behaviour.


Let's summarise the key points:


  • Habituation is the process of getting used to a stimulus through repeated exposure.

  • It reduces reactions to the stimulus over time until the dog may not react at all.

  • Habituation involves passive exposure to the stimulus, and it's often used for neutral or everyday stimuli during socialisation.


  • Desensitisation is similar to habituation but is done at a lower intensity or volume of the stimulus.

  • The goal is to make the dog less reactive to the stimulus by gradually increasing the intensity or proximity.

  • Desensitisation is commonly used to reduce fearful behaviours, and it allows the dog to notice the stimulus but remain calm.


  • Counterconditioning changes a dog's previously learned reaction to a stimulus from negative to positive.

  • It pairs the presence of the stimulus with something the dog loves or finds rewarding, such as high-value treats, play or praise.

  • The goal is to create a positive association between the stimulus and a positive outcome, replacing fear or anxiety with a positive emotional response.

Additionally, working systematically and breaking down the stimulus into various components (distance, movement, noise level) can be essential for effective behaviour modification. However, real-world situations can be challenging to control completely, so flexibility, adaptability and management in training methods may be necessary.

It's important to note that these techniques are often used in combination, especially when dealing with more complex behavioural issues. Combining desensitisation with counterconditioning, for example, can help ensure that the dog remains calm while forming positive associations with the stimulus.


The importance of considering various factors when working on desensitisation and counterconditioning with dogs. Changing the distance to the stimulus is just one aspect of behavior modification. Factors like movement, noise level, and other contextual elements can significantly impact a dog's perception of the stimulus and their emotional response to it. Here's a bit more detail on these factors:

  1. Distance: Changing the distance to the stimulus is a common approach because it allows for gradual exposure. It's often the first variable to adjust during desensitisation and counterconditioning, especially for fear-based reactions.

  2. Movement: movement can make a stimulus more intimidating. For example, a stationary object might be less frightening than the same object in motion. Introducing movement gradually can be crucial, particularly for dogs who are scared of moving objects or people.

  3. Noise Level: The volume or noise level of a stimulus can also play a significant role in a dog's reaction. For instance, loud noises might be more alarming than quiet ones. When working with noise-related fears, starting at a lower volume and gradually increasing it can be essential.

  4. Duration: Sometimes, the duration of exposure to a stimulus can impact a dog's response. For example, a brief encounter with a feared stimulus might be less stressful than prolonged exposure. Gradually increasing the duration of exposure can be part of the training plan.

  5. Context: The overall context in which the stimulus is presented can matter too. Dogs may react differently to the same stimulus in various environments or situations. Training should consider these context-specific responses.

  6. Novelty: Some dogs may be more sensitive to novel stimuli, while others may become anxious when faced with familiar but unpredictable stimuli. Understanding how a dog reacts to new experiences or unpredictable changes in their environment is important.

  7. Body Language: Paying attention to the dog's body language and subtle signals of stress or relaxation is crucial during training. Dogs communicate their emotional states through their body language, and trainers should be adept at recognising these cues.

By considering these factors and tailoring the desensitization and counterconditioning process to the individual dog and the specific stimulus, trainers and owners can increase the likelihood of success in modifying a dog's behavior and reducing fear or anxiety. It's a nuanced approach that requires patience, observation, and the ability to adapt the training plan as needed to ensure the dog's emotional well-being.

Overall, understanding these techniques and when to apply them can be valuable for dog trainers and owners looking to address and modify their dogs' behaviour in a positive and effective way. Chat to our team for a 1-2-1 appointment to help with your struggles! Click here 

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