Developing behavior change programs for dogs that are demonstrating fear or panic behaviors must be based on the protocols and procedures associated with respondent conditioning. If the dog is showing signs of fear or panic then the antecedent is having an aversive affect on the dog and the behavior is being negatively reinforced.
Systematic desensitization protocols develop a hierarchy of stimulus intensity with graded exposure through the hierarchy while counter conditioning takes place at each step.
Prior to developing a systematic desensitization protocol we must first complete a functional assessment and have a highly confident contingency statement. The contingency statement must identify controlling antecedents and the behavior and/or the hypothesized maintaining relationship between the behavior and its consequence. From the contingency statement a determination can be made about which behavior change protocols should be used, respondent, operant or a combination of both. Systematic desensitization protocols are used to change behaviors such as fear, panic or anxiety (behaviors that are controlled by the autonomic nervous system), with the goal being to change the respondents, i.e. the conditioned emotional responses. To effectively design a systematic desensitization protocol we need to know the specific conditioned stimulus that elicits the fear, panic or anxiety so we can construct a graded hierarchy starting with levels that elicit attention and not sensitization or potentiation.
When planning the graded hierarchy we need to take into consideration the stimulus variables that could elicit emotional responses such as the distance from the stimulus, the duration of exposure to the stimulus, distractions in the environment, the orientation of the stimulus and any motion or contrast within the stimulus exposure. For each of these variables we will need to develop a stimulus exposure hierarchy. When designing the systematic desensitization plan we also need to have knowledge of the setting events that provide the context for and influence the behavior and we need to recognize that respondent behaviors motivate operants because they establish operations “making it more likely” that the animal will “engage in escape or avoidance behavior” (Miltenberger 2004). Understanding if the operants are being negatively or positively reinforced is important, if the antecedent is aversive then the behavior is being negatively reinforced. If we can provide the same reinforcement for a more suitable behavior then the process of generalization can be expedited and behavior maintenance may be more easily supported in the future.
When constructing the systematic desensitization protocol it is critical to ensure that the animal enters the process in a relaxed manner and stays calm throughout each of the trials, sub-threshold. Preparation can be made to positively reinforce calm operant behaviors to encourage and maintain a happy and relaxed state or counter conditioning cannot occur. Too much excitement can also negatively impact the counter conditioning if the animal is too distracted from the problem stimulus. During the counter conditioning component of the systematic desensitization there must be a contrast between the “open bar” process of the systematic desensitization and the “closed bar”. When the fear eliciting stimulus is presented, all great things happen and they are quickly removed with the exit of the fear eliciting stimulus. There must be both a temporal relationship and a contingency between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus for conditioning to occur and for the problematic emotional response to be replaced with a new more appropriate response
(O’Heare 2009). O’Heare, J. (2008) Behavior Change Programming and Procedures 2009, CASI Notes, Miltenberger (2004) Behavior Modification Principles and Procedures Third Edition, Thompson. USA