Correct, Desensitize, or Condition; these are the three methods that I use to modify behavior in dogs. The most important part is to know which method to use when, as the wrong method can either be ineffective or detrimental to the dog. A very common example of using the wrong method is to correct a dog when it is in a fearful state. Correcting a fearful dog usually just adds to the fear and blocks the natural learning process. In this blog post, I’ll write about the concept of “desensitizing” which is most commonly used to help a fearful dog to get over a fear inducing situation.
It’s very common for a dog to become fearful of everyday situations and my own dog is a great example. She is a naturally fearful dog (more on natural “types” in a later post) and goes a little overboard with barking when a stranger comes to the door. Barking to alert the pack that a stranger has arrived is a natural behavior and not one that I discourage, but barking excessively is not natural and is born out of being overly nervous about the situation. It’s important to remember that dogs can’t hide their emotions. They may express these emotions differently from dog to dog, but they absolutely don’t understand the concept of pretending that they feel differently than they do; a dog will never hide it’s fear as a human might. So, my girl is expressing her fear by barking and I’d like it to subside. The most effective way to deal with this is not to address the barking, but to address the fear (this is the first key to understanding the concept of desensitization). Barking is a symptom of the fear, not the root problem. Correcting her barking (whether with verbal or physical corrections or positive reinforcement) adds energy to the situation and makes her even more nervous or excited. What we’re going for is calm and confident. Asking her to simply give me a little space to address the stranger at the door, dealing with the situation calmly and confidently and asking the stranger to ignore the dog completely will, in time, desensitize her to the situation that once scared her and sent her into a barking frenzy.
The biggest key to helping a dog to be desensitized to a situation starts with the human. It’s up to us to show our dogs, not to tell them, that the situation that makes them fearful is nothing to be afraid of. Balanced dogs are not fearful of everyday things (the garbage truck, other animals, people). It’s important to understand that it’s not us who are desensitizing them to a situation, we are just learning to not get in the way of their natural learning process. We set them up to learn naturally and then stay out of the way.
The way to do this is to not react negatively or excitedly to the situation ourselves and to not add energy to the dog. At any given time our dogs have a certain energy level that can be described in two ways: by the amount of energy (high to low energy), and the quality of the energy (confident, fearful, excited, etc.). When a dog is in a fearful/ medium energy state, anything you do to add energy will make the dog more fearful and vice versa; anything you do to subtract energy will make the dog less fearful. Most training methods address this problem in the opposite way, they try to influence the quality of the energy rather then the quantity, by giving treats or praise to try to flip the quality to confident rather than fearful. This can work for some dogs and I’ve used it myself, but it’s not the natural way that dogs learn and will never fully fix the problem. Have you ever seen a dog give praise to a fearful dog? I haven’t. With this in mind, what can we do to not add energy to a fearful situation for our dogs and not block their natural learning process? First, don’t make eye contact with the dog. A fearful dog will likely be looking at the fear inducing stimuli and then back at it’s human, back and forth, back and forth. Making eye contact with the dog is like saying “I don’t know what to do about this situation, what do you think?” to the dog and does not allow the dog to trust us to deal with the situation. Second, absolutely don’t speak to the dog. Again, this just raises the energy level. Third, deal with the situation so that the dog doesn’t feel like it has to. If it’s someone at the door, address them calmly and confidently. If the dog is nervous about the garbage truck, glance at it for a second and then move on to show the dog that there is nothing to worry about (again, without making eye contact).
These are all descriptions of things that I’ve observed dogs doing themselves. A dominant dog never checks in with a “back of the pack” dog before dealing with a situation, it just takes control with zero hesitation. In order to be the best dog trainers that we can be, we need to be training them in their natural language and doing our own versions of what they do; in this case, dealing with fear inducing situations calmly and confidently or ignoring them, so that a fearful dog doesn’t feel the need to react to the situation.
To re-cap, these are the three keys to desensitizing a dog to a fear inducing situation;
1. We’re not correcting the behavior that is born out of fear (barking, etc.), we’re helping the dog to get over the fear itself. If the dog is no longer fearful, or if the fear is reduced, the unwanted behavior will stop or subside.
2. Don’t add energy. Negative energy (corrections) , or positive energy (praise) are both bad in this situation. Our goal is to allow the dog’s energy level to come down on it’s own as it learns that there is nothing to be fearful of.
3. Demonstrate. Let your dog see you either confidently dealing with the situation or confidently not being bothered by it. This will show your dog that either you can handle the situation and don’t need any help or that there is nothing to be worried about.
Desensitizing a dog to a fear inducing situation takes time, patience and consistency. If we do the right things, we can see enormous progress over long periods of time. My own dog went from being frightened by all but a handful of people to being able to warm up to anyone in a matter of minutes, over a period of a few years. The most exciting part is that she continues to get more and more confident and I will surely look back a few years from now and see huge progress from today.
Best of luck on your own dog training journey and please feel free to get in touch (by clicking on the “get in touch” button on the top right), with any questions or comments! Thanks for reading!