What is desensitization for dogs?
If you are asking this question, then it is highly likely this training method has been recommended for you and your dog. Whether to overcome fear and anxiety or reduce their reactivity around other dogs.
The below information is designed as a guide and explanation ONLY. This is not written as instructions on how to do it yourself.
ALL training requires modification to suit your dog’s personality and the stimuli which are resulting in the behaviours you do not desire. Desensitization can be very easily done incorrectly and cause worse problems, long term. Even if they generate short term success. Desensitization is a lifelong commitment to maintain and improve, there are no short cuts.
We will always recommend seeking guidance and assistance from a reputable dog trainer or dog training organisation. We have years of experience refining our desensitisation program established by our business and trainers. We are more than happy to help you and your dog. However, if you wish for another trainer, then please do not hesitate to reach out to us for any advice in your search.
Desensitization is a behaviour modification training method. It is typically paired with Countercondititioning.
In a nutshell, desensitization is “exposure training”, in a controlled, gradual setting. Your dog is exposed to the stimuli which generate the undesired response, GRADUALLY.
Generally, the training starts at a level where the stimuli are present at a very low level where the dog does not respond. As they become “use” to the stimuli at that level without exhibiting a response. Then you can gradually increase the intensity of the stimulus (i.e. moving closer). Your dog is desensitized through this gradual exposure to the stimuli.
Understanding your dog’s improving threshold and structured “gradient for exposure” are key success factors.
Now, it is important to remember the next key factor for successful desensitization. Counterconditioning.
Counterconditioning is where the dog’s emotional response or reaction to a stimulus is changed from their current response (anxious, fearful, reactive, etc) to one that could be more positive and enjoyable or calm and collected in the presence of the stimulus. In achieving this, your dog rewards are present during the stimuli.
Another key success factor is understanding which behaviours you want to modify to behaviours you desire.
This will vary depending on what it is you need your dog to be desensitised to.
It is important to remember to NOT reinforce in any way the behaviours you wish to modify or find undesirable. Reinforcing undesirable behaviours ensures the continuation of them. This can sometimes include any form of negative consequence, depending on the dog.
ALWAYS reinforce the behaviours you desire such as calm, confidence, collected, and so on.
For example, with anxious dogs, you may need to encourage confidence and an enjoyable experience. Reactive dogs, you may need to encourage calm and collectiveness.
With these two scenarios, you are attempting to modify your dog’s feeling of need and mindset to present the undesired behaviours their own attempt of removing the stimulus themselves or removing themselves from the stimulus. The aim of the training is to change this mindset to one which considers the stimulus to one of less of a threat or to one where their typical response is not necessary around the stimulus.
Desensitization and counterconditioning can also be applied to excitable dogs and even other animals in similar situations.
Where to from here?
Once you have an understanding of what training your dog (or another animal) needs to modify their current behaviour, then you simply locate your local dog (or animal) trainer or behaviourist for further guidance and assistance.
It is important to have this assistance when you conduct this form of training (or any training) to ensure you are doing the right approach for your dog.
The last thing most trainers or behaviourist wants is to have you and your dog set up for failure. We (and they) are here to help you and your dog succeed, and achieve the best outcome for you all.