- Kristen VanNess
A Guide to Desensitization for Your Dog
Sometimes a dog may be excited, afraid, or overwhelmed by something they can perceive. This might be a sight, a smell, or a sound. One option for working through this is a process called desensitization. Dog desensitization is similar to how we may use the process with another species. Desensitization is often used alongside a process called counter-conditioning.
How to Desensitize a Dog
We can only do desensitization if we can control the problematic stimulus. For example, if your dog is excited about bikes and will bark and lunge at any bike that goes by, we could ask a friend to walk by with a bike 300’ away if that’s a distance where our dog does not lunge and bark at the bike. We want a starting distance where our dog might slightly notice but continue sniffing the ground, calmly resting, or calmly walking. We could have the friend walk by a few times at 300’ away. Then we can move to a distance of 290’ for a few passes. If we see any signs of agitation, we know that we’ve progressed too quickly, and we need to go back to a greater distance and be more gradual with changes.
Desensitization is tricky, as it’s not always easy to change something in gradual increments. Therefore, most professionals will combine desensitization with another process called counter-conditioning. In most counter-conditioning situations, we will pair the stimulus with something great, such as treats.
Recognizing Stress or Fear in Dogs
It is essential that we recognize stress or fear in dogs so that we can gradually increase the exposure without overdoing it.
Body language can vary depending on the individual dog, learning history, and structure. For example, greyhounds naturally stand with their tails between their legs when relaxed, but this may be a sign of fear or extreme excitement for a retriever.
There are excellent resources available to help you learn about dog body language, such as illustrations and infographics. Primarily focus on where your dog is looking, the position of its ears, what its tail is doing, and whether they are rigid or wiggly.
Common Unwanted Behavior
Many common unwanted behaviors result from fear, anxiety, stress, or excitement. These behaviors may include barking, lunging, pulling, jumping, or hiding. It’s easy to think of dogs as stubborn, difficult, or intentionally being difficult. In reality, dogs want good experiences and to avoid unpleasant experiences. No one wants to be afraid, and we can use lifestyle changes and training to help your dog feel more comfortable.
Desensitizing Dogs to Sounds
We can use desensitization processes as a way to change how a dog responds to sounds. For example, if we are training a dog who is excited about the sound of knocking at the door, we can start with a more manageable level. Tapping one finger on a wall in the house will not likely create a response. We can repeat this multiple times, then gradually increase the volume of the tap. The tap can slowly turn into a quiet knock. We can increase the knock volume and then proceed to multiple knocks. Once we can do this on a neutral wall, we can move inside the front door. Throughout this process, we want to see no response from your dog. It is a very gradual process and likely won’t be accomplished in one session. There are a few more stages before we move to knocking on the outside of the door and getting someone else to do the knocking - but this should be a great start for you.
Positive Stimulation Tips
Providing exposure at appropriate levels is vital to the process. It’s better for the initial exposure to be “too easy” than “too hard.” Start with distance or less exposure and gradually increase what your dog can perceive. This isn’t always possible - in those cases, we may benefit from veterinary involvement or a different learning process rather than desensitization.
Preventing Exposure to Your Dog’s Triggers
Throughout the training process, we want to prevent your dog from being exposed to his triggers. For example, we will not see progress if we provide the perfect training sessions with bikes but then let bikes woosh by during daily walks. Exposure at a level your dog can’t handle will be a setback to your training.
Sometimes we may be surprised or misjudge a situation - don’t be too hard on yourself if this happens. Do go out of your way to temporarily adjust your dog’s environment so that he is not overwhelmed. We want his only exposure to the triggers to be training sessions and/or at levels he can handle.
It can be hard to think of ways to prevent exposure - this is a great place to have a professional trainer assist you with a plan. These strategies will vary depending on your dog’s triggers. A few ideas might be to use window film to block visibility, choose walking locations or times that are less busy, or temporarily disable your doorbell.