De-sensitizing a Dog to Stimulus
What's that mean?
Simply put, it means that a dog that is fearful or reactive to a stimulus is likely to become less reactive if that noise or touch becomes common and routine, and no negative consequence at all (and maybe a few positive ones) are associated with it.
For example, suppose you have a young terrier that suddenly starts cowering or nipping when a veterinarian, dog show judge, or child reaches down to touch it?
What to do?
First of all, try to understand the fear from this very small dog's point of view!
A terrier might weigh 10 pounds and will almost certainly weigh less than 20 pounds. It will stand just 10 to 14 inches tall at the shoulder.
An adult human will outweigh the dog by 10 to 20 times, and will tower over it by a factor of six or seven .
To put this into perspective, this is like a 36-foot gorilla (as tall as a three story house) standing over you and trying to lift you up.
Unless you have had that kind of thing happen to you a lot and by a lot of different gorillas, and nothing bad ever happened, then you too might find being lifted up by King Kong a little scary!
So what might a small dog do in such a situation? It might shrink back,snarl, growl, or even nip.
And what happens next? The human backs up!
From the dog's perspective things worked out perfectly -- the dog got scared, the dog gave the human what it thought was a clear "go away" signal in response, and in response the scary human being that was trying to lift it up moved away.
What's the dog learn from that? Simple: that the proper response to scary humans that tower over them is to snarl, growl, or nip!
This kind of thing happens all the time: dog owners unintentionally rewarding dogs for negative behavior. If your dog barks, cowers, or nip other people out of fear and you try to comfort the dog to get it to stop, you are in fact reinforcing the unwanted behavior!
So what can a dog owner do in a situation like this to change the dynamic for the benefit of all?
Well first of all, ignore the dog. Don't look at it, don't talk to it, don't have eye contact with it.
You need to stop making the dog the center of attention (it can feel a bit like predation to the dog) and start claiming space in a calm, assertive, but non-threatening way.
To do that, you are going to invade the dog's space pretty routinely and in a casual "body blocking" manner. You are not going to reach for the dog or make anything but disinterested full body approaches to the dog without eye contact or voice cues. If the dog snarls or grimaces or nips, you are going to firmly tell it "No" in a deep voice, but it's not going to be a big production (remember, except for this verbal correction, you are still ignoring the dog), and there is going to be no physical contact at all.
Above all, however, you are NOT going to move away from the dog in response to a growl, snark or bark. That said, at the point of serious reaction from the dog you ARE going to stop advancing (you are putting pressure on the dog, not trying to get it to go balistic). Now you are going to simply hold your ground until the dog gets tired and relaxes and then, and only then, are you going to move away a little bit. Removing the pressure is the reward for the dog's calm demeanor. You are NOT rewarding the nipping or growling, but the calmness and the relaxation!
You are going to do this again and again, but occassionally you are not going to remove the pressure (i.e. you are not going to move away from the dog) when the dog is relaxed, but instead you are going to give the dog a small treat (a single piece of kibble is enough). This is called "counter-conditioning" -- associating a once-scary stimulus with a positive experience provided the dog remains very calm and very relaxed.
In time the kibble will be replaced with touching the dog, but not on top of the head but under the head on the front of the chest. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Once the dog is relaxed on approach and touch, you are going to start lifting up the dog under its chest using both hands so that the dog feels secure and is braced by your own chest. Then other people are going to do the same thing, perhaps slipping the dog the occasional treat until at last the dog thinks being picked up by people is the precursor to being loved-bombed and treated.
Much the same routine is followed for other kinds of desensitization and normalization.
You have a dog that is afraid of a veterinarians office? Well no wonder! Every time your dog goes there, it's lifted up onto a slick stainless steel table upon which it can barely stand, and then someone pushes a thermometer up its butt and jambs a needle in its shoulder. All of this, to be clear, is accompanied by the faint smell of feces, urine, chemicals and death coming from the back room, while the front room is generally packed with other scared dogs that are total strangers.
Do you blame the dogs for fearing the vet's office From the dog's perspective, nothing good ever happens at the vet. And nothing ever will unless you change that dynamic by taking the dog to the vet a lot of times when nothing bad happens (de-sensitization), and instead the dog gets a quick biscuit and/or a pat on the head by the veterinary stafff (counter-conditioning).
Desensitizing a dog is done much the same way for everything from cars and traffic to doorbells and thunder, from fog horns and flashing lights to lawnmowers and shotgun blasts.
Now to be clear, you may have to start from a distance and/or with a weaker version of the stimulus.
Before you blast a shotgun over a young dog's head, try using a board or bamboo clapper which will be a great deal less intense and intimidating (plus it's legal in the suburbs!)
If your dog is freaked out by lawnmowers or motorcycles, start with someone starting a lawnmower or motorcycle on the other end of the yard, or even a yard or two over.
Does your dog freak out from thunder and lighting? Try making a "thunder sheet" from a large sheet of aluminum purchased at the hardware store, and with "lighting" made by turning the lights on and off inside the garage. Start with a hungry dog (not feeding a dog for 36-hours will increase compliance and motivation a lot!), a bag of food, and a low rattle, and over time the rattle of the thunder sheet will sound to your dog a lot like a dinner bell!
In summation, the "trick' to de-sensitization is to put the dog around the offending stimulus often enough and gradually enough (progressive exposure) without anything bad happening and quite a lot good (counter-conditioning). If this is done long enough, and often enough, the dog's fear will shrink and a sense of calmness will grow.
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