Desensitization in Dog Training

This is another “Back to Basics” understanding article when it comes to some of the terms we use in dog training and how to utilize the training concepts with your dog.
A lot of people just simply don’t understand desensitization training and what it involves.  As dog trainers we throw the concept out time and time again, and I am no different.  I often find myself using this term often when answering questions on our blog.  But sometimes I forget not everyone knows what I am referring to when I use this term, so let me help you to break it down.
When you hear that someone is sensitive to something, it means they are quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals or influences, having acute mental or emotional sensitivity.
Dogs with severe behavior problems (aggression, fear, separation anxiety) are often overly and abnormally sensitive to a stimulus (person, dog, noise).   This over sensitivity also causes reactivity where the dog reacts inappropriately with excessive fear or aggression toward the stimulus in question.

Desensitization is a way of lessening the sensitivity until the response is small in proportion to the initial response, or until there is no response at all.
Desensitization works GRADUALLY and slowly exposing the dog to low and controlled levels of the stimulus that he is aggressive to or fearful of so that he can learn to control his reactivity and behavior when faced with the stimulus.

Counter conditioning which is very similar to operant conditioning and is also a key factor to successful desensitization.  The difference between counter conditioning and operant conditioning is that in counter conditioning the dog already has a negative and sometimes painful association with the stimulus so changing the association and creating a new one requires a lot of diligence, patience and repetition.
For example remember Pavlov and his dog?  An unknown stimulus to the dog (the bell) was associated after repetition with food making the bell meaningful after a fairly short period of time.

Now, with counter conditioning imagine that the bell instead means the dog will incur a painful shock of electricity.  Within a very short period of time the dog learns to associate the bell with pain, fear, and trauma.  Now imagine that you want to change that association to something positive like food and relaxation.
How long do you think it would take the dog to change his fear and pain association to 100% pure acceptance and excitement when the bell rings?  I can tell you it would be different for each dog, but I can also say that it would take a great deal of repetition and trust from the dog.  The bell (the stimulus) has previously been associated with a traumatic event and therefore it will take a long time to successfully counter condition.
Some have had traumatic experiences.
Distressing experience during the puppy fear stage Dog Fights Abuse
But often this response is as simple as a lack of socialization during the crucial puppy fear stages.

And it is just my belief that some dogs are genetically more sensitive or phobic than other dogs.  Just like some people are more sensitive, phobic, and reactive to things.  In people we know that this abnormal response is due to a biological difference in their nervous system.  I believe that dogs can be born with some of the same genetic behavior problems or diseases like Sensory Integration Disorder that people suffer from.
If you know for sure, your dog has never been abused nor had a traumatic experience your dog probably falls into the line of a genetic or biological imbalance; but both can be difficult to change.

In severe cases a veterinarian can diagnose and prescribe medication that can help with the process of helping the dog to desensitize.  Often medication alone will not work.  And, sometimes behavior modification with desensitization and counter conditioning is not enough without some form of medication.
If I had a phobic or anxiety disorder, I can tell you that I would want some medication to help me while I tried to deal with the problem.  So often owners of dogs are so very adamantly against medications, yet most of them have taken antidepressants or ant anxiety medication themselves!  If it can help, consider doing it for the benefit of your best friend.  It is not condemning him to a lifetime of medication; perhaps he will only need it while you help him with his behavior problems.

Desensitization is simple yet so very complex.  Whatever you are getting your dog use to (the stimulus) needs to be carefully controlled.  Short duration exposures of low intensity interspersed with praise for calm responses and counter conditioning with toys and/or food are the key.
The training sessions should be short and never geared toward getting your dog upset or to the point where the undesired reaction occurs.  As soon as you see the first sign of trouble, back up or go farther away from the stimulus.
If at any time your dog reacts with fear, aggression or stress, you are going through the exercise too quickly and trying to progress faster than your dog can handle.  You are also risking all the good behavioral training that has gotten you to this point by again making the stimulus invite fear or aggression.  It is crucial to do your best to keep the negative behavior from happening.

If you or your dog is having a bad day, skip the training exercises. It takes patience and a calm attitude to desensitize properly: forcing the issue is likely to set you back rather than help you progress.
I understand that vague training jargon maybe hard for some of you to understand, so I will give you a training example that may make this a bit easier.  But remember that desensitization is for many behavior problems, so if you are having one recognizes how to do it and give it a try.
For example: A client comes to me with a dog that is abnormally terrified of and slightly aggressive with men.
The stimulus in question is “Men”.
This is an abnormal fear.  It doesn’t matter if your dog was not socialized as a puppy, had a genetic predisposition toward fear, or had a traumatic experience because sometimes we don’t know.  What is important and what does matter is to take control of the situation and begin desensitization.

Each dog is different and figuring out where your dog is, is crucial.  Some people would say their dog is terrified of men but the dog would tolerate a man coming into the house without a problem but would have issues if he was within 10 feet of himself or his owner.  Some dogs would lose all control seeing a man 100 feet away.
You must know your dog and be able to recognize the signs of stress before they get out of control.  The second dog would require much more desensitization than the first dog.  However, the components will be much the same.
First would be to find a willing, small (I wouldn’t ask someone 6’5) and kind man to ask to help.  You must, in the beginning control the stimulus “Man”.  You wouldn’t go to the park and work with someone you didn’t know or somewhere that a person could come up and traumatize the dog.

The first step would just be to get the dog close enough to the man, who is standing still making no noise and not turned in the direction of the dog, that the dog shows no signs of stress at all and is able to complete simple tasks such as sit.  This may mean the dog needs to be 150 or 200 feet away.  The man will never turn around or even speak to the dog at this stage.
The dog should be counter conditioned with food, games and training as he shows no signs of stress, fear, or aggression.  As soon as the dog begins to notice the man or becomes uncomfortable the person will need to back up and train at a further distance.
For some dogs this training will take weeks or even months.  For some dogs this training will only take a few days.  It is all up to the dog how quickly you move forward, but do not move too quickly!

You would then move in as small of steps as possible; having the man turn to face you, having the man move non aggressively, having the man walk away, having the man walk toward, having the man speak.  At any signs of stress the dog owner must move back.
Once you can walk past a man that you know who can also talk to you (NO PETTING) although he may toss a treat to the dog as long as it doesn’t scare the dog and the dog is showing no aggression, you may begin working with another man, and then toward men that you don’t know but who are a long distance away.

The dog should slowly be associating men with treats, affection and fun.
Working as slowly and gradually as possible and as the dog is comfortable you go to more environments with more men and make sure the experiences are wonderful.
My opinion when I work with a dog like this is not to have the unrealistic goal that men are going to be able to pet the dog.  The dog needs to trust you and when you force him to be petted by someone or something that he finds terrifying you are opening yourself up for problems and probable aggression.  I believe in order for your dog to trust you, you need to ensure he is not petted or traumatized.  Keeping him in control is better than risking a bite.
I know this is tedious work!

If I am desensitizing a dog aggressive dog, I am not going to plan for trips to the dog park!  Don’t have unrealistic expectations.  Most people with severely dog aggressive dogs would be happy just to keep their dog quiet at heel and under their control.  This simplicity may be your goal!
The most important thing about desensitizing is to work gradually.  Gradually and slowly at the dog’s pace is often much too slow for us.  But, I beg of you to not force the dog.  Force brings more anxiety which will make the process worse and progress slower.  You must know your dog and never move faster than he is capable of moving