Low Stress Handling Part 6 - Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning February 22, 2016 20:49



So far we have talked about ways to minimise the development of anxiety and phobias, and how to be as gentle and thoughtful in dealing with pets as possible. Unfortunately many of the pets I see have already developed fears and anxiety from their life experiences before I meet them. Either from factors outside of anyone’s control, by not being given appropriate training and skills in their baby months, or by insensitive or harsh handling by owners, carers or staff.

The process of reversing these problem reactions involves desensitising the pet to the stimulus, and counter conditioning them to actually have pleasant associations with that stimulus. This means starting with the mildest form of a stimulus we can possibly manage, and pairing it with a reward each time.

For example: a dog who will not allow toe nail clipping. Freaks out, bites, wets themself, has a panic attack at the thought.

We need to start somewhere that doesn’t distress the dog.  Possibly just putting a hand on their shoulder.  Pair it with awesome treats. Pause, withdraw your hand and with-hold treats. Then put a hand on the shoulder again and simultaneously give treats. Repeat that process 7 – 10 times, until the dog sees your hand coming to their shoulder and eagerly looks for treats. Once this is well learned, place your hand on their shoulder as usual and just slide it slightly down the leg. Not too far – you should stay below the point where the dog would start to react negatively. Repeat the treat and pause process another 7 – 10 times.


The next steps would be sliding your hand a little further down the leg,  getting closer to the foot, each time treating and repeating 7 – 10 times before going further.  Then hold the foot up a little, imitating how you would need to hold it for nail clipping. Remember each step needs to be very gradual, staying below the level that upsets the dog, and you need to have the dog eagerly looking for treats as you perform the action. This is giving them the positive association with the action. Eventually, after however many steps it needs for your individual pet, you will have managed to hold the toes with the nails exposed and tapped them with a pair of nail clippers, followed by the ultimate goal, actually trimming the toenails.

This would be approached in short cheerful training sessions, maybe 5 – 10 mins depending on the dog’s attention span, usually would need two people involved and would have taken at least a couple of days.

This is what "eagerly looking for treats" looks like:

Of course if your dog is never restrained except for when you trim nails, you would need to back up a step further before all that and train them to enjoy restraint! 

If your dog just has a mild aversion to nail clipping then you could progress faster and reverse their attitude to nail clippers in only 2 or 3 sessions if you are lucky.

The example I have used is for nail trimming – because that is a common problem. However the same principles would be used to address fear or objection to being given tablets, having teeth cleaned or examined, receiving an injection, struggling when restrained, having ears examined or cleaned, having their collar grabbed and held, being on a lead, wearing a muzzle, meeting other dogs or people, being groomed, having blood collected, and many other frequent and important occurrences.

As you can see it does take multiple sessions of gradual desensitising, so I as a vet can’t actually achieve a whole lot in my once a year visit. If your pet has a terrible fear of vets, then me being gentle and reassuring but then giving them a needle isn’t going to help them to change their view radically. By using low stress handling techniques I will hopefully have avoided worsening their fears, but I won’t have had very much opportunity to desensitise and counter condition them. We would need to schedule visits specifically for this purpose, repeatedly over a span of time.

This little guy won't allow people to touch or groom around his back end and tail. Here we are a few steps into the desensitisation process - he is happy with a bit of contact there. We still would need to do a few more sessions to complete this training.

I do think that this is a worthwhile investment for most fearful pets. The health benefits of being able to accept examination, diagnostic investigation and necessary treatments are, as we have said before, hard to overstate.

As some of you are aware I have recently hired a vet nurse and I am excited about the possibility of begin able to offer nurse visits for desensitising and counterconditioning purposes in the next few months. This would make it a little bit more affordable than a vet housecall, and will be of great benefit to many dogs and cats.

You cannot desensitise and counter condition your pet to just enjoy everything. You have to work on each specific challenge, and you have to practise the skill in a variety of scenarios and environments. I know it’s one of the most over-used cliches in the world, but prevention really is better than cure! If you haven’t recently read my blog post on teaching them skills for life, go re-read it now - especially if you have a young dog or cat in your home!


By Dr Amy Coles