How Desensitization Is Like Learning How To Swim

(Photo: CC0 Public Domain)

(Photo: CC0 Public Domain)

Dogs learn about the world they live in through their experiences (both good and bad) and, since life always has some sort of new experience in store, it’s important to put your dog in a position to have a positive learning experience with whatever you're introducing her to.

While this is true for all dogs, it’s especially true for dogs that tend to be worried or cautious when experiencing new things, as well as for dogs that have had a less-than-stellar experience with something and are going to be introduced to it again.

Providing A Greater Chance Of Success

When I talk to clients about “...putting your dog in a position to have a positive experience...” it’s easy enough for them to grasp the concept, but it’s important for them to fully grasp the mechanics of putting that concept into practice. So that’s why I will often ask them: “When learning how to swim, what’s going to provide you with the greater chance of success... getting started in the shallow end of the pool, or jumping straight in the deep end?”

Starting In ‘The Shallow End’

As you would expect, most people choose the “shallow end of the pool” answer because they know the ‘shallow end’ feels safer, which will allow them to relax so they can concentrate on building up their abilities and confidence until they are ready to....... do what? Climb out of the pool and immediately proceed to the deep end, and (with fingers crossed) jump in? Considering that we’re looking for a strategy that will provide the greater chance of success, then no, experimenting with the deep end of the pool so quickly would be too risky for most people.

Desensitization versus Flooding

(Image: (c) 2016 Andrew Thomas) To help clients fully grasp the mechanics of desensitization, I often use the analogy of learning how to swim.

Instead, a more successful strategy would be for them to build up their abilities and confidence in the ‘shallow end’ until they are ready to move closer to the ‘deep end’. How much closer? It all depends on what they are comfortable with... even as little as a single step closer, if that's all they can cope with at that point in time. And after taking that next step they will begin the process of building up their abilities and confidence at that new depth until they feel ready to increase the difficulty factor again.

Through the use of this step-by-step approach they will make their way towards the deep end of the pool and, before they know it, they have the skills and confidence to swim around at that depth.

Starting Your Dog In ‘The Shallow End’

As you’ve probably already surmised, all of this talk about ‘learning how to swim’ is analogous to the process of habituating your dog to a new environment, situation, person, noise, dog, object, (etc.) through a process of desensitization.

Whether your dog is sensitive to novel experiences or novel objects, the method that's going to provide you with the greater chance of successfully introducing (or re-introducing) her to the stimulus is to start with a small amount (ie: 'the shallow end of the pool') so she is able to cope adequately.

For a dog that is worried/fearful of other dogs: Introducing the dog to the stimulus in a ‘small amount’ means starting from a distance that’s far enough away so that she isn't reactive to it. For that worried/fearful dog, greater distance from the stimulus means greater safety, and a greater ability for her to learn to cope.

For a dog that is being introduced to a new object such as a muzzle: Introducing the dog to it in a ‘small amount’ might mean initially leaving the muzzle lying around the house so she can look at it and sniff it, and determine that it’s no more interesting or worrisome than the TV remote control. Better yet, try pairing the presence of the muzzle with a good experience such as praise, pats and a treat, so your dog learns that 'good things' happen when this strange new thing is present.

How Small is Small Enough?

How do you know if the ‘small amount’ of stimulus you are exposing your dog to is small enough? You don’t have to guess... just look at your dog and she will tell you how she’s feeling through the display of her body language and behaviour.

If you get the level of exposure right, your dog should look interested or curious but still relatively relaxed, and she should be able to respond to your cues and even be distracted by other stimuli. When your dog shows that she is successfully coping with the presence of the stimulus in this manner, you should then be able to raise the difficulty factor by moving closer to the stimulus or increasing the amount of exposure to the object.

How much do you increase the exposure? Again, let your dog tell you. If she’s not coping well, then you’re asking for too much too soon, so you will need to take a step back towards that figurative ‘shallow end of the pool’ and spend more time at that level. Just like in the ‘learning to swim’ comparison, each time you raise the difficulty factor you need to give your dog the time necessary to habituate to that new level. You can definitely aid the desensitization process by interacting with your dog and positively reinforcing all desirable behaviours in the presence of the stimulus/object until she shows you that she’s coping well and capable of having the exposure increased.

Desensitization versus Flooding

(Photo: CC0 Public Domain)

Desensitization versus Flooding

‘Flooding’ is the opposite of desensitization... so if I can go back to my ‘learning how to swim’ analogy one last time, this would be the equivalent of getting started by jumping straight into the deep end of the pool.

With flooding, the dog would be exposed to the full force of the stimulus with the hope that she will habituate to it. Please know that this method is typically not recommended because it’s possible for flooding to ‘sensitize’ the dog to the stimulus (rather than desensitize) thus making her fearful (or perhaps even more fearful) to the stimulus.

No Lack Of Examples

There are no lack of examples where introductions and re-introductions through desensitization may be beneficial or an absolute necessity.

Some common ones include: Unknown people (adults and children), traffic noise, muzzles, crates, handling of paws, nail trimming, unknown dogs, bicycles, skateboards, scooters, slippery floor surfaces, confined spaces, the sound of power tools and gas-powered tools... and many more.

Please feel free to comment and relate your experiences, successes or challenges.


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Positively Expert: Andrew Thomas

Andrew Thomas is a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant who strives to break the cycle of dogs being given-up on unnecessarily due to behavior issues.


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  • Leonard Buzz Cecil

    Better than many, but ... still not quite accurate. Desensitization does rely on habituation as well as extinciton (see Craske, 2008, 2010, 2014). There is less than no evidence, that a dogs fear or even unease disappears through the procedure of desensitization. Fear responses, perhaps, but not fear itteslf. But ... the dog will learn to cope with it, if done well.

    Now, whether one does apply positive reinforcement to the procedure is important to note, because providing positive reinforcement in the face of the aversive stimulus may mask how the dog actually feels about that aversive stimulus. So there is a time and place for that as well as the proper stimulus and the proper reason for using positive reinforcement. You may even be working against the idea of empowerment of the dog, if you "force" a dog through the use of positive reinforcement in "over her head" in terms of arousal. So using positive reinforcement to reinforce an approach is ok, as long the dog did so on her own initiative - but I would also reinforce the retreat equally well.

    However, giving a cue to advance closer to an aversive stimulus and then reinforcing that advance is toying with fire. The dog may NOT actually want to be that close, nor internally be ready for that distance.

    Desensitization as done today with humans, after decades of research, is done almost wholley voluntarily (yes, with encouragement, but always with a veto right), the client advancing when he/she is ready, only going as far as he/she is ready to go. And THEN comes the reinforcement for having done that step voluntarily. When we do this with a dog, we rarely do so, that the dog determines when and how much she approaches an aversive stimulus.

    Habituation and extinction are imporant processes, because every time the client(dog) approaches voluntarily, expectations of horrible things happening get challenged. This is called "expectancy violation" as part of the extinction process. But then, it's important to stay at that level of intensity, until the intensity decreases = habituation. And at that point, the client(dog) will be ready to voluntarily approach further .... IF he/she really wants to.

    Also, flooding is not just throwing a dog in over her head. It's forcibly doing so AND not giving the dog a way or means to exit. In order to be flooding, both conditions must be fulfilled. So, what some people call a CC or a SD, in which a dog is exposed to an aversive situation on a short leash and half or fully body-blocked, whether the dog eats or not, is still flooding - just a situation in which the dog has worked out, that it also gets something to eat. For ... if the leash were dropped and the dog knew that retreat were an option, she probably would retreat, rather than stay there.

    For more information on the history and development of SD as well as CC, and how these are done today, as well as some "new" ideas for dealing with canine fear problems taken several other learning theories: http://www.auf-den-hund-gekommen.net/-/paper6.html

  • I could've saved a lot of typing if I read yours first 🙂 well put

  • Matthew

    Though true, it's quite simple to acknowledge when we face our fears we either tip toe into it and gradually adjust, such as a cold water pool, or we literally jump into and deal with it as we go such as sky diving; either you jump or you don't and if you don't you feel safe but if you jump you need to cope with it as it happens and often times are eager to try again. Dogs, contrary to common belief, tend to deal with whatever they're face with. They don't "conquer the fear" as we do but we teach them to tolerate things. if a dog is fearful of a vacuum for example, we teach them nothing bad is happening when we vacuum. I've rarely seen a dog enjoy the hum of the machine because they hear tones we don't. But, we teach them it's annoying but to deal with it because it will be over and nothing bad will have happened to them.

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