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Desensitisation and Counterconditioning (DSCC) – An Effective Science-based Method for Treating Fears and Phobias


Every pet owner wants their furry friends to live a happy and stress-free life. However, some animals such as dogs and cats may develop anxiety or fear towards certain stimuli, whether it’s thunderstorms, strangers, or even the dreaded vet visits. Desensitisation and counterconditioning are powerful tools that can help animals overcome these fears gradually and build positive associations with once-feared situations and objects.

Understanding Desensitisation and Counterconditioning (DSCC)

Desensitisation (DS) involves the gradual exposure of the pet to the ‘scary thing’ at a level that does not produce the fear response. The dog or cat becomes accustomed to the ‘scary thing’, and realises that there is nothing to be afraid of after all! Counterconditioning (CC), on the other hand, involves pairing of the ‘scary thing’ with something pleasurable, such as their favourite treat or toy, to create a positive association. Combining these two processes into a powerful method for behaviour modification: DS/CC, which changes the pet’s negative feelings about the ‘scary thing’ into a positive emotional response.

How Do I Carry Out DSCC?

  1. Identify the trigger/’scary thing’ and threshold: Understand what your pet is afraid of and determine, at what intensity your pet starts to become afraid. Note down characteristics of the trigger and modify it, such as increasing its distance from your pet to reduce the fear response. This is the starting point to begin desensitisation.
  2. Gradual exposure: Slowly expose your pet to the ‘scary thing’ at that low level, observing carefully for any indication that the dog or cat becomes fearful. If so, re-evaluate and reduce the intensity of the trigger.
  3. Pair exposure with something pleasurable: Identify your pet’s favourite treat or toy, and offer it AFTER your dog or cat notices the ‘scary thing’. The sequence of events is important for counterconditioning, or else it will not work!
  4. Increase intensity gradually: Watch your pet for calm, or even anticipatory behaviour towards the ‘scary thing’. Once you see it, carefully increase the intensity of the trigger by, for example bringing it closer.
  5. Rinse and repeat: Practice regularly, and be patient – progress may appear slow but we must acknowledge that overcoming fears and phobias are not easy, for both pets and people alike!

Remember to always progress at your pet’s pace and read their behaviours very carefully during the procedure. Incorrect application can result in worsening fear and anxiety! Our qualified and experienced behaviour consultants can coach you through the process for the best and safest results.

Real Life Examples of DSCC

Vet Visits: If your dog fears vet visits, regularly take them to the vet clinic for brief, positive interactions without any procedures. Offer treats and affection to make the vet clinic a place associated with positive experiences.

Thunderstorm Phobia: If your dog is afraid of loud noises such as the sound of thunder, play a recording of thunder sounds at a low level while offering your dog lots of tasty treats. Gradually increase the volume of the recording when your dogs shows signs that it is calm and relaxed.


Desensitisation and counterconditioning are powerful tools for helping fearful and anxious animals overcome their fears and phobias. The key is to work at your pet’s pace, ensuring each step is associated with positive experiences. With patience and consistency, you can transform once-fearful situations into positive, enjoyable experiences for your beloved pets in a humane and ethical way.


  • Gambrill, E. (1967) ‘Effectiveness of the counterconditioning procedure in eliminating avoidance behavior’, Behaviour Research and Therapy, 5(4), pp. 263–273. doi:10.1016/0005-7967(67)90018-6. 
  • Overall, K.L. (2014) Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for dogs and cats. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders. 
  • Strouthes, A. (1965) ‘Desensitization and Fear Conditioning’, Psychological Reports, 17(3), pp. 787–790. doi:10.2466/pr0.1965.17.3.787. 
Picture of Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster Cheong, BA, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA

Webster has trained various species in zoos, rehabilitated companion animals, and championed animal welfare standards. He represented Singapore in the Amphibian Taxon Advisory Group, focusing on amphibian care and conservation. Now, his main focus is in canine fitness and conditioning as well as essential canine skills.

Picture of Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

Qiai Chong, MSc, CSAT, CSB-D, CPDT-KSA

With over a decade of study in the animal behaviour and welfare sciences, Qiai earned her Masters from the University of Edinburgh and has since devoted herself to the welfare and behaviour of pets. She has worked as an animal behaviourist since, and her expertise lies in addressing pet behavioural issues such as fears, phobias, anxiety and aggression.

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