How to Desensitize Your Dog

Two Methods:Coming Up With a Treatment PlanDesensitizing Your Dog Gradually Through Counter-conditioning

It's heartbreaking to see our dogs shy away from people, objects, and other animals that can enrich their lives. To put your dog at ease, you can desensitize him or her through gradual exposure and by creating new, positive associations with its triggers. Over time, your dog will learn to overcome its fear and live a fuller, happier life.

Method 1
Coming Up With a Treatment Plan

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    Identify your dog’s triggers.[1] The trigger is the object, person, or place which causes the dog to panic. Dogs react in different ways to their triggers. For instance, your dog might put its tail between its legs, bark, run away, or whimper in fear. It might react aggressively to certain stimuli, for instance by barking, lowering its head, or bristling the hair on its back.
    • Make note of situations in which your dog demonstrates signs of fear, aggression, or other unwanted behaviors. Look for patterns in the their negative behavior and identify specifically what triggers your pet.
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    Rank your dog’s triggers. After discovering your dog’s triggers, write each on a piece of paper, starting with the most serious and working your way down to the least serious. For instance, perhaps your dog is agitated by all visitors in the house, but is especially rattled by young children. You could rank adults as less scary for the dog than children. Does your dog demonstrate fear at being picked up, or being picked up in a certain way? Do all little children trigger your dog, or are crying children more traumatic for your dog?[2] Use these and similar questions to figure out exactly what fears are most and least serious in the dog’s mind.
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    Expose the dog to its triggers gradually.[3] Start with the most mild trigger. Suppose your dog is very scared of adult men, somewhat less scared by adult women, and mildly scared of little children. By exposing your dog to, for instance, young children for a short time each day, your dog will gradually begin to realize that the trigger is nothing to be afraid of. You could have your dog spend five minutes each day with young children.
    • After a week or so, you could increase the amount of time spent to ten minutes each day.
    • After another week, you could increase the time spent in the presence of children to fifteen minutes.
    • When your dog is comfortable with young children, move on to the next trigger level (adult women in the above example). Repeat the process until it has been desensitized to all negative triggers.
    • Exposing your dog deliberately to its triggers for a specific amount of time constitutes a training session.
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    Try not to expose your dog to its triggers outside of training. If your dog is triggered by young children, for instance, do not bring your dog to the local playground unless you intend to have a training session there. If your dog is exposed to stimuli in an uncontrolled environment or at rates which are greater than those you’ve been using during exposure training, your work could be jeopardized and your dog may revert to its old habits.
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    Choose how to modify your dog’s behavior. There are two ways to modify your dog’s behavior: counter-conditioning or gradual desensitization. The two modes are virtually identical and usually used together. Used with care over a long period, either mode will reduce your dog’s trigger responses gradually.[4]
    • Gradual desensitization calls for the dog to be slowly exposed to its trigger over time, increasing the intensity or proximity of contact with the trigger until it no longer causes your dog’s negative behavior.
    • Counter-conditioning calls for your dog to be slowly exposed to its trigger over time and respond in a different, more positive way than it naturally would when in the presence of the trigger. If your dog learns quickly and likes treats, counter-conditioning is probably the best choice.

Method 2
Desensitizing Your Dog Gradually Through Counter-conditioning

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    Be patient with your dog. Different dogs react to different stimuli in particular ways. Something like garbage trucks which causes one dog no stress at all might be a significant trigger for another dog. Do not increase the level of exposure to the trigger stimulus too quickly or your dog might become even more, not less, sensitive to the trigger and come to mistrust you.
    • Some dogs might be quickly desensitized in a mater of weeks, while others might take months to change their behavior.[5]
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    Identify a reward your dog likes. Counter-conditioning requires replacing a negative reaction like fear with a positive reaction by changing the association your dog has to a given stimulus.[6] In order to counter-condition your dog, you’ll need to know what your dog likes. The most useful choice for a reward is a doggie treat. Alternatively, you could use small strips of chicken, beef, or liverwurst. Find a treat your dog likes and use it to counter-condition your dog.
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    Give your dog a reward when exposing it to its trigger.[7] For instance, if your dog is triggered by young children, wait until a child is in view (but before your dog is triggered) and give your dog a steady stream of small, yummy snacks. You could use any snack your dog enjoys, but make sure they are high-quality so that your dog will be interested in eating them over the entire period of time the trigger is present. Chicken, beef, and other tasty meats are good choices for reward snacks.
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    Gradually expose your dog to more intense triggers.[8] For instance, in the case of a dog who fears bikers, after achieving counter-conditioning with your dog at 30 yards, you could move your dog closer at a range of 25 yards. After your dog is comfortable with a biker at this range, move your dog closer to the stimulus at 20 yards. Remember to feed your dog a steady stream of treats while the trigger is in view. Continue in this way until the trigger does not inspire the negative response.
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    Expose your dog to its trigger in ten-minute intervals. These need not be continuous minutes. For instance, you could expose your dog to its trigger for three minutes, then rest one minute, then repeat, and end with a short two-minute trigger exposure.
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    Combine rewards when your dog stays calm during trigger exposure. For instance, you could both feed your dog a yummy snack and also pet it gently. Or, you could give your pet a snack while saying comforting things to it like, “Good dog,” or “You’re doing great” in a calm, reassuring tone.
    • When your dog can be exposed to its trigger without demonstrating negative behavior, you can stop giving it treats and celebrate having successfully counter-conditioned your dog.
    • Don’t combine treats for good behavior with yelling or punishment when your dog reacts negatively to the trigger.[9] Punishment or scolding will only slow the process of desensitization and counter-conditioning.
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    Maintain your dog’s good behavior. Conduct follow-up sessions at least twice a month so that your dog will not develop its fear again. Monitor your dog for signs of backsliding. Should your dog begin to show sensitivity to the trigger which you worked on before, do another round of desensitization training to prevent the recurrence of the negative response.
    • If your dog has serious trouble maintaining its good behavior, or if counter-conditioning seems ineffective, consult your vet about the possibility of using anxiety medications to calm your dog. Medication can be helpful to keep a dog calm during desensitization and counter-conditioning training.[10]

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Categories: Canine Health