By Abby Huxtable

‘Desensitisation’ is a treatment or process that diminishes emotional responsiveness to a negative, aversive or positive stimulus after repeated exposure to it (Wikipedia).

In dog training, we use this to reduce a dog’s response to something, usually something they don’t like, or are afraid of. However, we can also use it to reduce over-excitement or frustration as well.

Many of the guides contain files to specific desensitisation methods, such as to cars, the door, or touch. However, I wanted to include a bit more of a generic guide, as we receive a lot of questions on this.

If your dog is very fearful, or very excited, you might need to counter condition them to the trigger or stimulus first. See the link in Counter Conditioning. Then you can desensitise to a neutral reaction, once the response is calmer.

Counter conditioning is the process of changing an innate response to something, usually from a negative to a positive, so something they are worried or scared of. We do this by associating the negative thing with something they love, so over time the negative thing predicts the good stuff, so becomes good in itself. It is a more active process than desensitisation, where we are aiming for that neutral response. Used together, counter conditioning and desensitisation are very powerful methods of changing a response to a trigger.

The desensitisation process is all about breaking the trigger into very small steps, and gaining a neutral or ‘meh’ response to each step, before adding the next step, to eventually build that ‘meh’ response to the overall trigger.

I’ll use a couple of common examples as I walk you through the process.

Separation Anxiety triggered by you leaving the house, and over excitement at visitors arriving at your house.

Step 1: Note the point at which the trigger causes your dog to start to look alert (either excited or worried).

This might be you walking to the end of the rug or towards your front door (SA), or the sound of a car pulling onto your drive (visitor).

Step 2: Repeat this step in sets of five to ten repetitions, in several mini sessions, until your dog shows no response to the stimulus. Five to ten repetitions seems to be the sweet spot. It is enough to enable them to start getting bored, without being so many that it provokes a stressed response or your dog goes over threshold. Usually one to three sessions of this per day is a good amount, but fit in as and when you can.

Walk to the end of the rug near your door and away again x 10 (SA).

When your partner comes home from work, have them pull onto the drive, off again, and repeat x 5 (visitor).

Step 3: When there is no response to the stimulus at that step, add another small step, and repeat.

No response to the end of the rug, so take one step past the rug, then come away from the door again x 10 (SA).

No response to the car pulling into the drive, so stop the engine, and open car door x 5 (visitor).

Step 4: No response to step 3, so add another step and repeat.

Step up to the front door and moves away x 10 (SA).

Get out of car and walk up drive, return to car x 5 (visitor).

Step 5 and beyond: Once there is no response to each step, keep slowly adding those small steps, until the complete behaviour occurs with no response. You can still practice randomly on occasion, with nothing scary/ exciting happening at the end, to maintain that ‘meh’ response.

You can walk out of the front door and leave and your dog is calm.

A visitor arrives, rings the bell, you greet them, let them in and your dog is calm.

Aerial View of Wooden Steps between Palm Trees

Remember, the smaller your steps for your desensitisation process, the easier and quicker you will reach the overall goal.