How Animals Learn- Part 4: How We Can Help

How Animals Learn Part 4: How We Can Help

Has your dog or cat shown changes in body language during certain sounds like fireworks or thunderstorms? Have you noticed that sometimes your furry friend gets over things just fine, but it seems random things will set them off? For our last post in this How Animals Learn Learning Portal series, we are going to talk about how we can use the way animals learn to help them through their own fears.

Depending on the animal, certain situations can induce a stress-response beyond what is appropriate for the captive situation. But often, animals can be taught to stop fearful, aggressive or other unwanted responses to these situations: habituation, desensitization and counter-conditioning are three different approaches, to help animal companions cope.


Desensitization is a method used to slowly get an animal used to a new or frightening stimulus. To desensitize an animal, a stimulus is first presented at such a low a level (to where no stress behavior signals are being observed), then train with in incrementally higher levels until it no longer shows stress behaviors indicating a fear response at the highest level.


To get started, navigate to Youtube/Spotify on your phone or laptop. Turn the volume down so that you can barely hear it and play a selection of different sounds, including construction sounds, skateboards, children screaming, dogs barking, fireworks, airplanes, doors slamming, or babies crying. 

Whilst the sounds are playing in the background, give your dog or cat something fun to do, like a stuffed Kong or play flirt pole with them. Alternatively you can practice some training games or play with their favorite toy. 

Every couple of minutes you can turn the volume up a notch. The idea is that your puppy is having such a fun time, that they don’t pay attention to the sounds around them.

If at any point your fur friend stops what they are doing to listen to the sound or looks concerned, showing whale eyes, panting, lip licks or moving away from the noise, stop the game and be sure that when you practice next, you work at a lower volume and increase more gradually.


Counter-conditioning is the process of training an animal to change their response to a stimulus. For over-excitement, this can look like teaching a calm, automatic sit when a person approaches, so the dog does not jump. For fear, this usually involves changing a fearful response into a neutral or desired and positive one.

Counter-conditioning is often used alongside desensitization. For example, with sound desensitization and counter-conditioning, a stimulus is introduced little by little, and the pet parent/trainer takes part in the process by rewarding calm behavior (possibly settled in spot/place behavior on a PEMF mat- for thunderstorm anxiety, as an example).


Habituation is a simple form of learning that does not involve any actions by pet parents. It is a passive learning response with no rewards involved. It is simply the decrease or cessation of a response to a stimulus due to repeated, prolonged or continuous exposure. This is not always advisable, as other outcomes might result from such habituation. For example, an animal may become continually anxious, instead of ignoring the stimulus (like when dogs show increased stress behaviors every storm instead of ignoring the thunder).

Email tulsarehabvet@gmail.com to get a free Canine Myth Buster eBook about how to help your canine companion through their fears instead of act based on myths about dog behavior.

We can help them through understanding…

With the conclusion of this How Animals Learn series on the Learning Portal, I hope you can start to see ways that you can better communicate with your fur friends.

Here is an example where I used the different principles of animal learning that we have talked about this month. Just because it is Train Your Dog Month, don’t think I left the feline friends out of this!

My cat, Kitts, doesn’t fear many sounds. But today she was caught off guard by the Oklahoma winter thunderstorm we suddenly had. She is a brave kitty, so I watched to see if I felt habituation would take care of her natural stress response. But instead of getting used to it, the intensity of the storm picked up and she started showing signs of anxiety.

That’s when the clicker came out, and the rehab games began to change her conditioned response to the winter storm sounds. That’s all it took to get her back into comfy winter kitty zone. See the video for more ->

If your dog or cat is showing signs of stress, reach out to your veterinarian. Pain and illness can increase signs of stress in animals. Behavioral changes like increased reactivity or lethargy are important signs to visit your veterinarian. If you have questions, please reach out to tulsarehabvet@gmail.com

Written by: Dr. Emily Hall, DVM, CCRT, CPAT-KA

Trusted Resources:

-Smith, F. W. K., & Tilley, L. P. (Eds.). (2015). Blackwell’s five-minute veterinary consult: Canine and feline. (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
-Dugatkin, L. A. (2014). Principles of animal behavior (3rd ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
-Irwin, M. D., Stoner, J. B. & Cobaugh, A. M. (Eds.). (2013). Zookeeping: An introduction to the science and technology. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press
-Dorey, N. R., Melfi, V. A., & Ward, S. J. (Eds.). (2020). Zoo animal learning and training. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell

-Overall, K. (2013). Manual of clinical behavioral medicine. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier.
-Dorey, N. R., Melfi, V. A., & Ward, S. J. (Eds.). (2020). Zoo animal learning and training. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell