Desensitization is a process which can help your dog “get used to” environments, situations, objects, people, animals, places, noises, events and so on that arouse an emotional reaction in them, and is a common treatment for anxiety and phobias.
The primary function of desensitisation is for your dog to become less sensitive - to present the stimuli which provokes the reaction from your dog in such a way that it no longer appears intimidating, over exciting, frightening or threatening. This is often done by introducing the stimuli in very small steps and gradually increasing their intensity over a period of time to allow the dog to become accustomed to its presence or occurrence in a non emotional way.
At K9 Anytime, we work on desensitisation with our pups and their pawrents and have seen some fantastic results. Together we’ve tackled brooms, vacuums, watering cans, ringing phones, and postmen! We had a pup who would bark for England at the sight of someone at the gate, who now won’t even raise his head from a snooze when he hears a car!
Here are some points to consider when approaching desensitisation with your dog:
Desensitisation is a gradual process. Results will not come instantly within one session and it is absolutely vital that it is taken slowly and consistently.
Recognise the offending stimuli in as much relevant detail as you can and determine the major attributes which trigger the reaction in order for you to address the issue as effectively as possible (for example, are they anxious around new people, or is it specifically men, women, children? Is it the location, the volume, the movement and so on?) Then try and determine which of these factors are most & least threatening to your dog and progress along this scale when increasing intensity of the stimuli.
Devise ways of making the stimuli less intense. You want to present a weak, less threatening version of the thing they fear or dislike by making it smaller, slower, shorter lasting, farther away, less noisy, or still rather than moving and so on. Over time, as they become accustomed to the low exposure, gradually make the stimuli stronger again, progressing along the scale of what they found to be more intimidating or threatening.
Introduce and increase the offending stimuli in such small increments that the problem behaviour doesn’t occur. If your dog becomes reactive at any of the stages, you are going too fast and need to reduce the intensity again. This process should be repeated until the offending stimuli provokes no reaction from the dog when at full intensity.
Introduce positive reinforcement and association with the situation and stimuli. Include their favourite toys, praise or extra special treats alongside the desensitisation process so that they also begin to associate the stimuli with a positive outcome. This is called counter conditioning,
Do not move on to the next level of intensity until your dog is showing no signs of being reactive at the current stage, or is seeking a positive reinforcement for their non-reactivity instead of their previous fearful or emotive responses. Progressing to the next stage might take several sessions over days or weeks, and you should always begin a new session at the stage you left the last session. Stay at a level as long as it takes for your pup to be unworried and relaxed in the situation, do not progress before then, and go back to a lower level if necessary.
PLEASE NOTE if your dog is showing aggression or dangerous behaviour, enlist the help of a canine behaviour professional. Do not put your dog or yourself in danger by provoking emotional reactions from them. Please be sure to research the topic of desensitisation fully before proceeding with your dog. The following articles provide some more information as a starting point for your research:
Desensitisation & Counter Conditioning for Pets