How do you desensitize a dog and how does systematic desensitization work on changing behavior in your canine companion? If you are here, most likely you own a dog that has developed a strong emotional response to certain stimuli in his environment. Anxiety, fear, aggression or excitement, may be the underlying emotions at play, while barking, lunging,
pacing, snarling or shaking are the outward manifestations of such emotions. Whether your dog responds negatively to people at the door, the sight of other dogs, or thunder, the process of desensitization may be effective if you introduce it correctly and know how to reap its benefits.
|If your dog is scared of water don’t food“ him, go gradually.|
So what exactly is desensitization? Desensitization is a form of behavioral therapy used in the field of human psychology, but it is effective in animals as well. Its primary function is to present the frightening stimulus in such a way that it appears less intimidating.
For instance, if you suffer from arachnophobia (fear of spiders), most likely a therapist will have you take a look at pictures of spiders, he will never start out by placing you in a bathtub full of
them! This gradual approach, where the frightening stimulus is presented in a less frightening way, is what desensitization is all about.
The process of desensitizing a dog is therefore implemented while keeping the dog under threshold so he can cognitively function and learn. To team more about threshold levels please read this article. What this means is that your dog is exposed to the smallest version of the frightening stimulus, just enough to detect and create awareness of it, but not so much that he freaks out. Back to the arachnophobia example, if you saw a picture of a spider, most likely your heart would not race and you would be less likely to scream than if you had one crawling on your arm!
Sensitization and Desensitization in Dogs
How and why is a dog likely to react to certain stimuli he or she perceives as frightening/exciting/arousing? Let’s imagine for a moment that your dog is a puppy. The first spring storm comes through and he doesn’t seem to mind the thunder. Then another storm rolls in a week later and a strong rumble of thunder startles him. About 15 minutes later another loud rumble comes and your dog runs to hide under the bed.
Because running under the bed makes your dog feel safe, this behavior will self-reinforce (strengthen and repeat).
He will now continue seeking the bed every time he hears thunder. Because of the continuous rehearsal of this behavior along with nothing bad happening to your dog (after all, when he hides he makes it through the stom with no harm), the behavior puts down roots, and soon you have a pretty reliable behavioral problem: You have a dog scared of thunder… Actually, not only is he scared of thunder, he has learned to start getting frightened at the very first signs of a storm rolling in. Yes, dogs are very good at sensing drops in barometric pressure, vibrations, and subtle changes in the static electric field preceding a storm, according to Alex Liebar. And because dogs live through associations, they soon learn to pair these changes with the upcoming storm.
So what happened? If the dog didn’t care much about the thunder initially, but got scared at a later time due to the stimulus being more intense, most likely the dog became “sensitized” to it. Sensitization is the opposite of desensitization. Let’s think of it another way: You could go your whole life not minding spidem too much if you only ever encountered tiny money spiders on your arms, but one tmumatic experience of a tarantula crawling over your face and perhaps even biting you could leave you traumatized and frightened of spiders for life!
While a dog can become sensitized to a stimulus, it is also true that a dog can become desensitized to it, so the process can be systematically reversed. In other words, a stimulus that becomes more intense, more frightening, more intimidating is more likely to lead to sensitization, whereas, a stimulus that becomes less intense, less frightening and less intimidating is more likely to lead to desensitization.
For this reason, should you decide to desensitize your dog to a stimulus, you must make sure you have a pretty good program with good under the threshold exposure, because sloppy desensitization risks leading to sensitization. Sloppy in this case means sudden exposure to intense stimuli, rather than gradual, subde increments of intensity. When you suddenly expose your dog to too much intensity, it is known as “flooding.°
What if There Is No Way to Work Under Threshold?
In some unusual circumstances, you may notice that you cannot find a a way to work with your dog under threshold, either because your dog’s reactivity levels are too high, or because the environment you are working in allows no distance from the trigger. What should you do in such cases?
In such a case, you have some options:
Walk the dog for an hour prior to the desensitization session. When tired, some dogs are tess likely to be reactive.
Find a calming aid to take the “edge off” so your dog will be less aroused. In some cases, Thundershirt, Storm Defender or an Anxiety Wrap may be helpful.
For severe cases, ask your veterinarian for advice. Your dog may need medication/supplements and a behavior modification program with a behavior professional.
Find the highest value treats and use counterconditioning along with desensitization (highly recommended).
So How Can You Desensitize a Dog?
Curious to see a step-by-step process on how to desensitize a dog? Let’s take a peak. In this example, let’s say your dog is reactive to door knocking. We saw this in the Behavior Training for Dogs .course, but here is a gradual 9tep-by-step guide:
Start knocking on a table far away from the door very lightly, if your dog barks, you need to knock more lightly, almost light enough to not be noticed.
|A dog to the Sound Of knocking on the door, as seen on this|
If your dog does not react, you can proceed and make the knocking louder. If your dog barks, you need to knock more lightly.
Start knocking in areas closer to the door. At increasingly louder levels as before. As always, if your dog reacts, you are going too fast for his comfort, so start at a lower level of intensity.
Then start knocking the door from inside. Start lightly, and then gradually knock louder.
Once your dog doesn*t mind this, begin to knock from behind the door; start lighdy and then gradually knock louder.
Because all these knocks were not accompanied by a guest entering the home, they are gradually becoming less relevant and more meaningless. In order for desensitization to have an effect in this case, the number of knocks with no guests coming over has to outnumber the number of knocM resulting in guests arriving.
As much as desensitization may appear like an effective way to get a dog to become less reactive, it may not always deliver the promising results you’re hoping for. In the book “Excelerated Learning,” Pamela Reid explains how a dog may appear to be desensitized to repeated doorbell ringing, but then should the door bell ring after a break of 20 minutes, the franctic barking starts all over. This is why I
avoid using desensitization alone and prefer to power it up with counterconditioning. In counterconditioning, every knocking sound results in a treat delivered to your dog. Over time your dog learns that knocking is a signal that good things are coming — treats!
Einstein Says: If your dog is suffering from behavioral problems, please consult with a behavior professional.