Updated: Mar 19
Systematic Desensitization in Dogs
Getting rid of fear and anxiety in dogs
Systematic desensitization is a type of behavioral therapy that is used in a lot of different animals including dogs. The idea is to help fearful and anxious animals progressively relax in the presence of the thing that causes fear, anxiety or even aggression.
Trainers use this technique to help animals that are afraid of objects, other dogs and even people. This approach is also beneficial when animals associate certain actions with fear and anxiety. Systematic desensitization sounds like a mouthful! But if you’re dog is fearful or anxious then this approach can be beneficial to you!
The main idea is to progressively teach your pet to be calm around their trigger, however the key is to never make your dog be in a situation where they can react in a fearful or aggressive manner.
The advantage of desensitization is that it works well, and it does not use any type of punishment (yay!) Instead you use treats to help your dog remain calm.
The disadvantage of desensitization is that this technique can take a long time and requires patience.
HOW DO ANIMALS BECOME FEARFUL?
Animals become fearful or anxious through a process called classical conditioning. This approach is taken to teach pets the meaning of a marker word (good! Down, Sit, etc.) by always following the marker word with a treat. Then when we are able to use the marker word and the dog responds this is a conditioned emotional response. The dog is used to feeling happy getting a treat after completing a behavior (even if there is no treat coming afterwards).
However, the opposite can happen as well. Pets can learn a certain stimulus is associated with something bad happening. If this is repeated, then the stimulus itself will make the dog feel fearful.
For example: you’re on a walk with you pet. Another dog approaches and you get tense and pull on the leash a little bit. After several interactions like this your dog starts barking at other dogs. Your dog has learned that other dogs make you tense and then they get a pull on the leash. Now your dog becomes afraid at the sight of other dogs while on a leash even before you have a chance to react.
And then there are events that can be so stressful that even one-time exposure will make your dog fearful for a long time. This is called sensitization.
This term “sensitization” is used when animals over-react to a stimulus (sound, touch, etc.)
This response can happen when a stimulus makes your dog emotionally aroused and then repeated over and over again. However, this can happen with a single exposure as well.
Examples of this are thunderstorms, fireworks, gunfire, etc. These loud noises make your dog afraid and then if repeated your dog becomes anxious. Unlike classical conditioning, sensitization is not stimulus specific.
For example: Your dog is sensitized to gunfire because they are at a fire range at the time and then someone approaches your dog from behind and your dog over- reacts to the stimuli of a person approaching from behind.
Fearful associations and phobias are hard to undo, but with practice and patience and the approach of desensitization, things can be undone.
SYSTEMATIC DESENSITIZATION STEPS
The number of steps you need with this approach will depend on your particular situation and level of fear/anxiety in your pet. The general idea is all the same, however. All you need to do is learn to understand your dog’s emotional state (which can be found in the graphic below) and act accordingly.
via Pet Professional Guild
Via Vet Behaviour Team
Systematic desensitization is the process by which you will expose your dog to the fear/anxiety eliciting stimulus (like other dogs) in a gradual manner. During each step, the stimulus should be at a distance (or small enough, quiet enough, etc.) in which your dog does not reach in any way (no barking, growling, freezing, drooling, etc.)
We will go through 2 different examples of desensitization in dogs. During the training process I recommend keeping a log of each training session. This will help you see improvements even if they are small as well as remembering behaviors you are noticing.
Write down the date, time, and subject for training (i.e. which dog or person was helping you).
Example one: Your dog is afraid of other dogs.
Step 1: Write down the date and exact situation that you are about to expose your dog to (example: a dog approaching on a walk while on a leash).
Step 2: Have a friend with a well - known dog assist in walking towards you and your dog.
Step 3: Bring both dogs together but ONLY at a safe distance. What is that distance? If your dog shows any signs of fear/anxiety, then you are too close to the other dog. Move further away.
Step 4: You will add to the mix counter-conditioning, which means reverse a bad association to a good one. When your pet notices the dog in the distance but does not react to it, reinforce that behavior with a treat, verbal praise or an activity they enjoy and then repeat…. repeat…. repeat!
Step 5: After many many repetitions you will notice that your pet is completely comfortable when a dog is in sight (at a safe distance). Your dog will become even more excited at the prospect of a reward. This is the time to move a little closer. USE CAUTION! Do not move too close, you don’t want your dog to react fearfully.
Step 6: At the new safe distance use counter conditioning again.
Step 7: repeat steps 1-5 until you are side by side with the other dog.
At this point you can repeat this exercise with another dog and then 2 dogs at the same time.
Again, the number of steps will be dependent on your dog and their level of fear/anxiety. For example, replace fear of dogs with fear of strangers. When you get to the step of being side by side, you may want to add a step of having the stranger handle to dog and then pet the dog.
Example two: Your dog is anxious when you leave the house.
Step 1: Write down the date and exact situation that you are about to expose your dog to (example: grabbing keys and putting on shoes).
Step 2: Write down your process of getting ready to leave the house. What is your routine? Do you put on a jacket and then your shoes and then grab wallet/bag and then keys and then walk out the door? Is your routine in a different order? Do you grab coffee or food before leaving?
Step 3: Pick the first thing on your list. Let’s say you put on your jacket first. Go over to where you keep that jacket, put it on and then go over and sit down. If your pet does not react in an anxious way reinforce that behavior and repeat.
Step 4: If your pet seems to not be reacting to your jacket, then put on your jacket and shoes and then go sit down. Repeat.
Step 5: Put on jacket, shoes and grab your bag and then sit down. Reinforce for calm behaviors. Repeat.
Step 6: Put on jacket, shoes, grab you bag and keys and sit down. Reinforce for calm behavior. Repeat.
At this point if your dog is reacting calmly to all the steps you take to leave the house then you can add going into other rooms out of sight of your dog. As long as you dog remains calm and isn’t frantically searching for you, reinforce and repeat.
***Remember to be patient. Each step can take many repetitions before you are noticing improvement. An important concept to understand is that a reactive dog will always be a reactive dog. So, remember to not let your guard down because one day your dog might react again if conditions are right. If working with a fearful or anxious dog makes you nervous, then reach out to a professional and have them help you along. Seeing them in action will help to teach you a lot!
Muddy Paws Training & Behavior