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  • Taryn

Desensitisation and Where We go Wrong

A week ago, I posted a short piece on the misunderstandings around counter-conditioning, and I promised to follow up with a post discussing similar problems with desensitization, as the two processes are often paired in DESENSITIZATION & COUNTER-CONDITIONING (DS & CC) protocol used to help dogs to overcome fears, phobias and reactivity.

When we talk about desensitization as a tool in behaviour modification, we are referring to “systematic desensitization”, which is a process of exposing an animal to a stimulus which has an associated negative emotional response, at a level (distance and intensity) where the stimulus does not trigger that emotional response and then gradually intensifying that level in increments that the animal can cope with, so that the negative emotional response is never triggered and the animal stops associating those feelings with the trigger. In DS & CC we also try to replace the negative emotional response with a positive one, by introducing food, toys and other stimuli which naturally trigger positive emotional responses into the situation.

So where does DS go wrong? Let’s have a look at some practical examples:


In practise this often does the opposite. A puppy that may not have current aversion to handling or only a mild aversion to handling, is picked up by various strangers and experiences what is often quite invasive touching i.e. physical restraint, hands all over the head, in the mouth, grabbing paws etc. This experience for many puppies is frightening or frustrating, because although they may technically still be in the socialisation period, by the time puppies attend puppy class, they are emotionally developed enough to start having strong negative emotional responses to new situations, if they find them unpleasant. Far from desensitizing puppies to being handled, forcing pups to be held and handled invasively by strangers can actually SENSITIZE them to handling and create a negative emotional response to people approaching and reaching hands out towards them. The proper way to get a puppy used to being handled, would involve starting at a level where the puppy clearly felt relaxed and under no pressure (maybe simply a few strokes on the puppy’s chest), where the puppy would be able to move away if they wanted to (no restraint) and adding a classical conditioning component (touch predicts food) to create a positive emotional response.


Here one needs to understand the difference between desensitisation and FLOODING. I have already explained what desensitisation is, but what is flooding? Flooding is placing an animal or person in a situation where they are exposed to something that triggers a negative emotional response at an intensity that is so overwhelming and all-consuming that the person or animal basically shuts down and stops any attempt to escape from the situation or make the threat go away. Flooding leads to learned helplessness – no way out, give up, shut down and withdraw. This technique has been seen a lot on reality TV shows, as it can look as if it gets magical results. For example, a dog that is reactive to other dogs is placed in an enclosure with 20 other dogs. They are so overwhelmed that they literally do nothing. This complete absence of behaviour (including the previous reactivity) is seen as extinction of the problem. However, it is purely situational pressure and as soon as the dog is out of that situation the behaviour recurs and may even be worse, due to the experience increasing the dog’s stress levels and creating more negative associations.

These are just two examples, but there are many more we see every day. Desensitisation is a slow and steady process. It works, but it takes time and patience. It is usually our eagerness to progress at a rate that is beyond what our dogs are capable of that turns desensitisation into sensitisation or flooding! Patience is probably not something that many of us are good at, but patience is key to DS & CC.

Another important point to remember when using DS & CC is that MANAGEMENT is our friend! If we are going to slowly DS & CC our dogs to something they have a negative emotional response to, allowing them uncontrolled exposure to the trigger outside of training sessions will undo everything we have achieved. If you are working on DS & CC your dog to being handled, sending them off to a groomer is likely to be a total disaster – this is a classic case of flooding - dogs at the groomer are often so overwhelmed that they shut down and “behave”. Your dog’s emotional welfare is more important than a show cut - so don’t put your dog through this. Similarly, if you are working on your dog’s reactivity to other dogs, continuing to walk them in areas where they will have negative encounters with other dogs (such as dogs barking from behind fences in the street) will make your DS & CC sessions absolutely pointless. Management is not a cop-out, it is an essential tool to give DS & CC time to work.


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