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Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Pamela J. Reid, Ph.D., ASPCA

Cassie is a young female pit bull mix in the ASPCA shelter. When she first arrived, she was ridden with fleas and ticks and she was just plain filthy! Like all of the animals coming into our shelter, one of Cassie’s first visits was with Diane, our grooming expert. Cassie had ideas different from Diane, however. She wasn’t interested in becoming clean; she was pretty content in her smelly state. In fact, she became downright belligerent with Diane, growling and snarling at her. Diane called in the troops and, with the help of kennel staff to hold Cassie, she was able to shampoo and disinfect her. You’d think that once the experience was over and Cassie felt so much cleaner, she’d appreciate and befriend Diane but, no, Cassie was convinced that Diane was extremely dangerous and should be frightened away at every opportunity. Diane appeared at the ASPCA Center for Behavioral Therapy, asking for help in dealing with Cassie.

We began by instituting what is termed a desensitization and counterconditioning procedure with Diane and Cassie. In the early 1900s, a paper was published in a Psychology journal, describing how a group of researchers helped a young boy named Peter, who lived in an orphanage, overcome an overwhelming fear of rabbits. Peter adored eating ice cream, a rare treat in an orphanage at the turn of the century. Twice a day, the researchers brought Peter into the cafeteria to eat an ice cream cone. While Peter was eating the ice cream, he sat facing a rabbit placed far away at the other end of the room. He was fine as long as the rabbit was very distant but, if the rabbit moved closer, he’d begin to cry and lose his appetite for ice cream. The researchers made sure to prevent the rabbit from frightening Peter. Instead, over many days, the researchers moved the rabbit closer, inch-by-inch, so incrementally that Peter was able to be relaxed and comfortable. Eventually, Peter was eating his ice cream cone while the rabbit sat on his lap! The keys to success were the gradual movement of the rabbit and the delicious ice cream. We decided to try the same approach with Cassie.

Each day Cassie came to the Behavior Center for her “therapy” sessions. We determined that Cassie loved baby food so we used that instead of ice cream. Before Cassie came in, we positioned Diane at the far end of the room and covered her with a sheet. Cassie sat, leashed to a trainer at the other end of the room, eating small helpings of baby food, while Diane’s sheet was pulled off and she was revealed. Fortunately, Cassie was okay with Diane that far away and continued to eat the baby food. Cassie ate while Diane stood in place for about 20 minutes. Each day, we inched Diane closer to Cassie. When Cassie acted as though she was really excited by the prospect of another therapy session, we started leaving Diane “shroud less” at the beginning. Cassie was okay with this because she was learning that Diane was associated with the tasty baby food. Finally, after a few weeks, Diane was sitting next to Cassie, feeding her the baby food herself. The next step was to ensure that Cassie was okay with Diane moving about the room, speaking to her, and even walking directly toward her. We continued with the same procedure, but we moved Diane back to her original location at the far end of the room. There she moved about, talking, gesticulating, and basically acting normally. While she did this, Cassie lapped up her baby food. Like before, we moved Diane gradually closer but as she neared Cassie, she began directing conversation to her. At long last, Cassie and Diane had forged a new friendship, albeit on the understanding that there will be no more baths for Cassie!

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