Storm Watch & Success, Part 3 – Desensitization & Counter-Conditioning

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Storm Watch

Storm (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

So you’re ready to get started combating storm fear, right? Of all the various tools we’ll cover, these will be the most generally useful for the most cases.

Desensitization and counter-conditioning are often confused, and indeed they can be similar. Both involve starting at a very low level of exposure to the trigger and gradually raising it. But they are different processes.


Desensitization relies on inuring the subject to a repeated stimulus, essentially turning the trigger into mere background noise. (A New York City resident hardly notices the traffic noise which keeps a tourist awake all night.) This is the theory behind thunderstorm and fireworks CDs for dogs; they are to be played at a barely-noticeable volume at first, well below the threshold at which they induce anxiety, and gradually increased until they simulate actual events.

Desensitization can work well in many cases, but it can occasionally be hard to implement. Some triggers cannot be controlled or introduced at low levels (barometric pressure, lightning, etc.); Laev exhibited real panic at live gunfire, but never twitched an ear at recorded gunfire even at maximum volume. Some animals are so sensitized that there isn’t a feasible sub-threshold trigger exposure. But mostly, it takes time; starting below threshold and gradually increasing the stimulus can take days, weeks, or months, depending on the situation. Also, exposure must be carefully controlled; a real storm cutting into your controlled desensitization program can set you back all the way to the beginning.

But, desensitization is a good protocol, and if you start well before storm season, you can make some very good progress with it.


Flooding is often included as part of desensitization, but it’s a little different — rather than carefully controlling exposure, the trigger is presented at a steady level until the subject acclimates. It’s popular on some television programs and in many horse training programs, etc.

When flooding works, it works well. The NYC resident mentioned above likely acclimated through flooding, rather than carefully increasing amount of city noise. Many horses learn to stand still for being “sacked out,” many dogs learn to sit still in restraint, many people learn to ignore background chatter.

When flooding doesn’t work, though, it can backfire big time and actually sensitize the subject. This is what happened to Laev, who as a puppy played happily beneath fireworks displays and relaxed near a shooting test; when periods of steady gunfire began which might continue for a couple of hours, she became increasingly sensitized until even a small dose of the trigger noise could send her into a full-fledged panic attack. This is also why many dogs begin to fight and struggle at the first sign of restraint — often it’s not the nail trim or mouth exam which is the root problem, but sensitization to restraint!

The Cell Block Tango - relevant to storm phobia?

The Cell Block Tango – relevant to storm phobia?

Remember in the musical Chicago, in the Cell Block Tango, the first singer describes how Ernie’s gum-popping became more and more annoying until she finally was forced to kill him?

He had it coming… If you’d have been there, if you’d have heard it, I’d bet ya you would have done the same!

That is sensitization from flooding, in a nutshell.

As a general rule, because the potential fallout from flooding is so high, it’s not recommended. The same results can be obtained, with much less risk, via controlled desensitization and counter-conditioning.


Counter-conditioning is probably the fastest protocol (though remember, as explained in Part 2 of this series, “fast” may be relative depending on the level and history of the fear). Instead of simply waiting for the unwanted emotions to fade with repeated, sub-threshold exposure, we will actively replace them with more positive emotions.

Like desensitization, we’ll start counter-conditioning at low levels of exposure, but we’ll deliberately add good stuff as well! We want to make the trigger stimulus now a new predictor of fabulous fun. This can be done with toys, food, petting, access to special privileges, etc. Present it as soon as the trigger happens, so that the trigger now reliably predicts the desirable.

At the sound of distant thunder, my dogs often check with me and start toward the corner of the kitchen; they know thunder means a chance to for a treat (we’ll talk about drugs and alternative therapies later). This is quite a shift from wanting to hide at the first distant roll!

Remember, we are not rewarding fear — we are replacing it. Don’t be afraid to use the good stuff!

What kind of “good stuff” you’ll use will depend on your dog’s preferences and his fear. Here are some things to consider as you build your own list:

  • treats, timed to arrive immediately after the trigger (thunder means a cookie is coming!)
  • puzzle toys filled with amazing food available during whole trigger event
  • intense tugging and games with human
  • low-arousal games with human
  • long-lasting chew items (bully sticks, knuckle bones, etc.)
  • access to privileged items, places or a “safe place” (more on this later!)

Dogs’ reactions and preferences will be individual! Inky finds some puzzle toys frustrating and it wouldn’t be a good choice when she’s already borderline. Shakespeare would absolutely hate being asked to play with me during a storm, but he loves a stuffed Kong at these times. Laev might play a game of tug during a moderate storm but prefer the mindless release of gnawing a knuckle bone during an intense tornado warning.

Counter-conditioning is usually our first choice for treating fears. There are subtle variations, active and passive counter-conditioning, but this is almost always your simplest and best first choice.

If your dog will take no food or toy at all, your trigger is too intense — reduce exposure until the dog will readily eat or play. If you simply can’t get it any lower (the thunder CD is at 1 on the volume dial, or the primary trigger is a barometric pressure change and you can’t fake that), stay tuned for more options coming.

Next post — safe spots and stress relief, and emotion versus logic. See you then!

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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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  1. This is great information.
    Both Foxy (shih tzu, older) and Diesel (probable boxer and
    rhodesian ridgeback mix, older) have fears of loud noises.
    Foxy has had a fear of thunder for most of her life;
    usually she finds her safe spot in the breezeway,
    but once when the breezeway was closed,
    Vince found her over a mile away from home.
    Diesel has recently started to run (luckily not far)
    or sit and shake if he is confined whenever he hears explosions.
    A neighbor has been shooting off fireworks of the type
    that sound like mortar shells.
    (All b-o-o-m, nothing pretty to see.)
    So I am eagerly anticipating (and reading) this series.

    • The breezeway is likely Foxy’s safe place! which is discussed in today’s post (#4). Diesel needs a safe place and some counter-conditioning to help him start to relax. The running is a stress relief for them, but obviously not ideal!

      We have a neighbor whose grandson likes to come out to the country to set off bombs, as well as the target shooting, so I’m sympathetic to the booms! Lots of counter-conditioning for that stuff.

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