Do you know your conditioning from your counter-conditioning? Habituation from desensitisation? And the difference between desensitisation and systematic desensitisation and counter-conditioning?

Some of the language and concepts used in dog training and behaviour can seem baffling, so we have compiled this short guide to help you along the way.


 ‘’Familiarising with others, environment and situations while creating positive associations’’

Conditioning simply refers to learning. It is the process of training a dog (via operant conditioning), or getting a dog accustomed to certain situations and to behave a certain way (via classical conditioning).

In training and behaviour, we mostly refer to the word “conditioning’’ when using classical conditioning to encourage a puppy or dog to be comfortable around someone or something it is not yet familiar with. In other words, to make a positive association where previously there was no association at all.

For example, conditioning a dog to have good experiences during the important first few weeks of puppyhood – by encouraging positive associations with humans, other dogs and animals, and its environment, e.g. being handled, travelling in car, vacuum cleaner.

In adults, examples of conditioning include acclimatising a dog to wear a muzzle or being in a crate, to the changes associated with the arrival of a baby, e.g. pushchair, baby sounds etc.

It is important to remember that associations made via classical conditioning can also be negative. For example, pulled hairs whilst brushing a puppy may result in a dislike or fear of being groomed, or an adult dog who experiences being barked at repeatedly in a dog training class may start to bark back defensively and become wary of certain dogs.


‘’Changing the thought’’

Counter-conditioning (CC) is a technique which focuses on changing the emotional response to a particular stimulus – and ultimately the thought causing the response.

In training and behaviour, CC is typically used to change a negative response caused by a previous association, into a positive one.

Some common examples of negative associations:

  • A dog who experienced pain while being examined by the vet is becoming reluctant to visit the clinic and be handled.
  • A dog mostly being walked on-lead, has been chased aggressively by off-lead dogs on several occasions and is now tense when off or on-lead dogs appear.
  • A dog is becoming increasingly anxious each year during the fireworks season.

Counter-conditioning is the process of making good things happen around something or a situation, which is currently causing a dog to feel uncomfortable, tense, anxious or frightened. This is done by pairing the frightening stimulus with something good – to change a bad experience into a pleasant one.


For the dog who has been chased and is now tense around other canines, counter-conditioning could involve giving a valuable food treat every time a dog appears in the distance (same if several dogs appear). Repeatedly pairing dogs with food over time, the aim is to change the thought from ‘’Oh no, another dog. I don’t like it!’’ to ‘’Great, a dog. Great stuff happens when I see one!’’.

This is an example of the use of classical (or respondent) conditioning to change the response. Alternatively, operant (or instrumental) conditioning can also be used. For example – by pairing exposure to the trigger with training, e.g. a sit, stay, touch, etc.

There is more to it of course, a good understanding of body language, avoiding any recurring incidents, working from a safe distance and ensuring the dog is and stays relaxed, preferred reinforcers, timing of delivery, and more.

Depending on how mild or severe the anxiety or fear, CC may be used alone – or it may be necessary to use it in combination with desensitisation (as systematic desensitisation and counter-conditioning – see below). Counter-conditioning is recommended when a problem has recently arisen and a dog has only just begun to show signs of being uncomfortable in a particular situation, i.e. the dog is still coping with the stimulus and the fear has not fully developed into a phobia.


What is the difference between conditioning and counter-conditioning?

Use conditioning where a puppy or dog is not yet familiar with something or a situation, and no associations have been made – whether positive or negative.

Use counter-conditioning where a negative association has been made and you want to transform it into a positive association.


‘’Exposing safely, gradually and incrementally’’ 

Desensitisation (D) is a technique used to reduce an emotional response to an unpleasant or frightening stimulus, originally caused by repeated exposure to it.

In dog training and behaviour, it is used in conjunction with counter-conditioning to treat dogs with a fear or phobia of people, other dogs or animals, or anything in their environment, e.g. noise, appliances, objects, etc. This process is known as systematic desensitisation and counter-conditioning (D&CC).

Systematic desensitisation and counter-conditioning

‘’Reducing or removing the fear’’


  • Via gradual and incremental exposure to the fear-inducing stimulus over time, while ensuring the dog is relaxed at all stages [desensitisation]
  • By pairing the exposure with a pleasant activity, e.g. food, toy, game, interaction, training, etc. [counter-conditioning]

Common examples for the use of D&CC would be a fireworks phobia, or on-lead fear-motivated aggression towards other dogs.

Systematic D&CC is generally used when CC alone will not suffice, when the dog’s fear response is too great and proximity to the trigger causes a dramatic reaction.


What is the difference between counter-conditioning and desensitisation?

Desensitisation helps to diminish the emotional response.

Counter-conditioning helps to change the thought behind the response.


‘’Getting used to it’’

Habituation occurs when a dog learns not to respond to a stimulus presented repeatedly – without any reinforcers.

A typical example would be when a new sound occurs in a dog’s environment, e.g. construction work, sound from a new electrical appliance, etc. The dog may initially be startled but the response would decrease over time, eventually disappearing as the dog organically becomes used to it.

Habituation occurs via non-associative learning and the response is innate, meaning the dog learns to ignore the stimulus naturally and without any treatment intervention.


What is the difference between desensitisation and habituation?

Desensitisation is a treatment process where a dog is increasingly exposed to a stimulus in a controlled manner to reduce its intensity over time.

Habituation is a process where a dog is repeatedly exposed to a new stimulus in its environment, but the initial response to the stimulus naturally fades over time without intervention.


Conditioning: Used to get a dog accustomed to someone or something it is not already familiar with – via positive associations. Important for puppies.

Counter-conditioning: Used to change a negative association into a positive one – when the fear is low level and a dog is still coping relatively well with proximity to trigger

Desensitisation: Used in conjunction with counter-conditioning (see below)

Systematic Desensitisation and Counter-conditioning: Used to transform a negative association into a positive one while exposing the dog to the stimulus gradually and incrementally, ensuring the dog is relaxed at all times  – use when fear starts to increase or is established, and a dog is not coping with trigger

Habituation: Occurs naturally


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