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Dog Behavior: Understanding the Process of Desensitization

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

If your dog is scared of water do not "flood" it; do it gradually!

If your dog is scared of water do not "flood" it; do it gradually!

Understanding the Dog Desensitization Process

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 increase its benefits.

What 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 done while keeping the dog under the threshold, so the dog can cognitively function and the lines for learning are open.

What this means is that your dog is exposed to the smallest amount of the frightening stimulus, just enough to detect and create awareness of it, but without making him freak out. In other words, if you see a picture of a spider, your heart will not race, and you will be less likely to scream than when you have 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 that your dog is a puppy. The first spring storm comes through, and he seems pretty much unfazed by 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 under the bed. Because running under the bed makes your dog feel safe, this behavior will self-reinforce.

In other words, he will continue seeking the bed now every time he hears thunder. Because the continuous rehearsal of this behavior along with nothing happening to your dog (after all, when he hides, he makes it through the storm with no harm), this behavior puts roots, and soon you have a pretty reliable behavioral problem.

Now, you have a dog scared of thunder—actually, not only is he scared of thunder, but he has also learned to even start getting frightened at the very first signs of a storm coming. Yes, dogs are very good in 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.

Sometimes, it is best to leave behavior modification to the professionals.

Sometimes, it is best to leave behavior modification to the professionals.

So, what happened? If the dog didn't care much about the thunder initially but got scared at a later time due to the stimuli being more intense, most likely the dog became sensitized to it. Sensitization is the opposite of de-sensitization.

While a dog can become sensitized to stimuli, it is also true that a dog can become desensitized to stimuli, so the process is reversed. In other words, a stimulus that becomes more intense, more frightening, and 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 and habituation.

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 sub-threshold exposure, because sloppy desensitization will lead to sensitization. Sloppy in this case means sudden exposure to intense stimuli rather than gradual, subtle stimuli. Basically, you are "flooding the dog."

What If There Is No Threshold Level?

In some unusual circumstances, you may notice that you cannot find a way to work your dog under threshold, either because your dog's reactivity levels are too high or because the environment you are working at allows little to no distance from the trigger. What to 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 less likely to be reactive.
  • Find a calming aid to take the "edge off" so your dog will be less aroused. In some cases, Thundershirt, an Anxiety Wrap or Storm Defender may be helpful.
  • For severe cases, ask your veterinarian for advice. Your dog may need drugs and a behavior modification program with a behavior professional.
  • Find the highest value treats and try to use counter-conditioning. While it's ideal that counterconditioning is combined with desensitization, using counterconditioning alone with the aid of some calming aids may be productive.

An Example of Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning

How to Desensitize a Dog

Let's say your dog is reactive towards door-knocking. We saw a little part of this previously, but now let's go more in depth. Here is a gradual step-by-step guide:

  1. Start knocking on a table far away from the door very lightly. If your dog barks, you need to knock more lightly, almost imperceptibly.
  2. If your dog does not react, then you can proceed and make the knocking louder. If your dog barks, you need to knock more lightly.
  3. Start knocking in areas closer to the door, at increasingly louder levels than before. As always, if your dog reacts, you are going too fast for his comfort, so start at a lower level of intensity.
  4. Then start knocking the door from inside. Start lightly, and then gradually knock louder.
  5. Knock from behind the door; start lightly 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 knocks resulting with a guest.

As much as desensitization may appear like an effective way to get a dog to become less reactive, it may not deliver the promising results as wanted. Pamela Reid in the book Excel-erated Learning explains how a dog may appear to be desensitized to repeated doorbell ringing, but then should the doorbell ring after a break of 20 minutes, the frantic barking starts all over. This is why I avoid using desensitization alone and prefer to power it up with classical counter-conditioning.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli


Rudy on April 05, 2020:

Dog reacts to grooming his fronf paws

Jung on July 12, 2019:

Hi Adrienne,

I appreciate your article!

I have a new puppy in a building with an elevator, it seems hit or miss if the puppy is fine waltzing in or is trying to back away or hesitant to come in - I offer a treat every time the puppy comes into the elevator (willingly or with a little tug of the leash), but would of course prefer to just call the puppy in. Sometimes my pup will take the treat happily and sometimes will look at the door as it closes and not be interested in the treat. Once we are moving he usually relaxes.

Would carrying my puppy into the elevator be a good desensitization tool in this case? And/or with crowds?

Interested to hear your thoughts.

Thank you!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 12, 2012:

Thanks you, I am happy you found my article on dog desensitization helpful, kind regards!

sangeeta verma from Ludhiana India on October 11, 2012:

Voted up. Your hub is a through guide for a pet owner.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 11, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by Eiddwen!

Eiddwen from Wales on October 11, 2012:

Interesting and very very useful.


Funom Theophilus Makama from Europe on October 10, 2012:

A hub of great quality, fantastic and very engaging. It is a complete page which I greatly enjoyed and appreciate. Thanks for the awesome share and definitely voted up

GiblinGirl from New Jersey on October 10, 2012:

Another interesting technique I'll have to try out with my dog.