Written by: Kassie Dickson, CDBC, CPDT-KA
Desensitization is the process of gradually exposing your dog to a stimulus so that it doesn’t elicit fear, stress, excitement, or the like. Typically, we use desensitization in conjunction with counter conditioning. Beginning to desensitize certain stimuli while they are young can save you a lot of trouble in the long run avoiding a later anxious or aggressive dog.
For example dogs in need of regular grooming should be desensitized to ensure that later in life grooming is not a stressful event. This is also true for things like: vet visits, people, places, or other stimulus your dog may encounter frequently so that these become comfortable for your dog.
Start early with your pup, from when you bring them home! It’s never too early to learn. You want your dog to be comfortable with the handling of their feet, legs, belly, tails, ears, and bum. It’s even important to ensure your pup is happy with you touching their face and inside their mouths, as your vet will tell you oral hygiene is very important, so you may be brushing your pooches teeth one day.
Can I Desensitize My Dog Alone?
Yes! To start, take a couple of minutes and a handful of food, or your new licky mat covered in peanut butter or Cheeze whiz. As long as your dog is happily taking food, you can touch, pet, and cuddle them. If at any point they stop eating, stop what you’re doing and when they begin eating again, continue on.
This is letting your dog give you consent, it serves as a great way for them to communicate by opting in and out of whatever you’re doing. When they continue eating, they’re offering that consent and if they stop, they’re saying they’re uncomfortable.
There are many other great ways to teach consent with prompted positions like chin rests or target touches. Work with your trainer to begin teaching these and your puppy will thank you for it!
This is how we change our dog’s conditioned emotional response; it’s a form of classical conditioning, which means that our dogs learn by pairing two things together. For example: touching paws while feeding kibble, bathing while licking cheese whiz, etc. We take something your dog may not enjoy or is indifferent towards, and we pair it with something they like, whether this is a primary reinforcer like food, or a secondary reinforcer like play.
With counterconditioning and desensitization combined, we can change our dog’s conditioned emotional responses as well. So if you happen to have a fearful or reactive dog, implementing protocols that influence emotional response can improve these issues and make your dog's quality of life much better.
Desensitizing Your Dog to The World Around Them
Leaving your dog alone can be stressful for both you and your dog. So implementing protocols to get your dog comfortable with your departure, as well as confinement, can be hugely important and keep your dog safe. It’s also very important to use desensitization and counterconditioning at a young age or as soon as your pooch is in your home.
Counterconditioning and desensitization to things that may not only scare them, but also to novel and even ordinary stimuli, helps your dog understand that the world around them brings good things. It helps to reduce the chances of your dog becoming fearful around things such as: people with hats, canes, bicycles, skateboards, or even other dogs.
Desensitizing Sounds, Sights, and Smells
You can work hard to implement desensitization to sounds, sights, and even smells, by simply pairing them with something your dog finds rewarding. This can make things like thunderstorms, a crate, the sound of a streetcar or bus, the smell of the neighbour’s cat, and more, less likely to be scary in the future. We can teach them to move through environments that could affect dogs and have them ignore these potential triggers.
It’s important to remember that with classical conditioning and specifically this type of learning, the rewards, or play, should not be contingent on your dog performing a behaviour, simply, they notice something new and they are rewarded. It’s that easy. There are more complicated procedures to help your dog but to implement those, you should visit a certified trainer or a behaviour consultant.
Disclaimer: It's important that if you have a dog with separation anxiety issues or the like that you seek out a certified dog trainer or behaviour consultant. They will best understand how to deal with these issues and along with the help of a veterinarian, you can reach your goals of having a less stressed dog!