Desensitization Article


Desensitization Article (PDF)


Desensitization: Be Diligent… Not Detrimental



  • Stimulus – any environmental event that affects, or is capable of affecting, behavior.
  • Trigger – any stimulus that elicits, or is capable of eliciting, responses related to stress, anxiety, fear, or aggression.
  • Feeling – an emotional state or reaction.
  • Over Threshold – the point at which a stimulus is intense enough to elicit responses related to stress, anxiety, fear, or aggression.
  • Systematic desensitization – a procedure in which the individual is gradually exposed to a stimulus based on a hierarchy, in a manner that does not elicit the unwanted emotional and behavioral responses, in order to reduce fear, anxiety, and/or aggression.
  • Counter Conditioning – a procedure that replaces negative emotional responses to a stimulus with more positive, adaptive responses in order to reduce fear, anxiety, and/or aggression.
  • Generalization – the tendency for a behavior to occur in situations different from the one in which the behavior was learned.


In order to successfully implement a desensitization protocol, it is important to remember to always work within a hierarchy of least challenging to most challenging scenarios. Other aspects of counter conditioning may also play a part in your behavior modification plan, but let’s first focus on the framework that will help make your efforts as successful as possible.

Whether your dog’s unwanted behaviors are triggered by a visual stimulus (such as other dogs or humans), an auditory stimulus (such as the doorbell, knocking, fireworks, or thunderstorms), or a combination of both, the goal is always to work very gradually, in a manner that does NOT cause the unwanted behaviors to occur.

Behaviors can be respondent (automatic, reflexive responses elicited by antecedent stimuli) or operant (behaviors that become more or less likely depending on their consequences). Desensitization and counter conditioning are used in respondent learning – in this case, to modify how the dog feels in response to something that he currently finds stressful, scary, threatening, or otherwise aversive in nature. Although respondent and operant behaviors are different, they ultimately work together; when we use a procedure to affect one system, we affect the other. In this case, when we are successful in changing respondent behavior through desensitization and counter conditioning, we also produce a change in the animal’s operant behavior.

Let’s say, for example, that you have a dog that feels scared or threatened by something (respondent component) and growls and barks (operant components) in an attempt to keep the scary thing away. You can use procedures like desensitization and counter conditioning to help your dog learn to feel comfortable and relaxed (respondent component) around the scary or threatening thing, and it will also produce a change in their operant behavior. If the thing is no longer scary or threatening, there is also no longer a reason for the dog to growl and bark at it!

Dogs may use undesirable operant behaviors to express their anxiety or fear, such as displays of aggression, which may include growling, barking, or biting. There may also be additional signs of stress or anxiety, such as hyper-vigilance, trembling, or even attempts to avoid or run away from the trigger, among others. Emotions and behaviors, both respondent and operant, are the product of a particular trigger’s proximity or intensity in the environment. Therefore, in order to change emotional responses and the behaviors that accompany them, you must change the environment to affect how the dog experiences the trigger.

It is important to know how emotions and behavior are affected, because unlike operant behaviors that are controlled by their consequences – via reinforcement or punishment – you cannot punish or reinforce respondent behavior or emotions. Even if you were successful in punishing a specific operant behavior, such as barking, you may not be changing the way the dog feels about the stimulus. Think of it like trying to treat the symptoms, but not the actual illness. You may suppress the symptoms temporarily, but they are likely to return and may be worse than they were to begin with.

If your dog displays any unwanted behaviors during training, you must immediately ASSESS the situation, and CHANGE something in order to make it easier for your dog to be successful – your dog is telling you that the situation is too difficult for him* to handle!

*For sake of consistency throughout this article, ‘him’ will be used as the pronoun to describe the dog’s gender.

In other words, you need to carefully alter the conditions in which your dog experiences his trigger(s) so that he is able to remain relaxed and comfortable (aka under threshold) in their presence.




  • Distancehow close (in proximity) is the trigger?
    • Typically closer = more challenging.
    • This is usually the easiest component for us to modify. Moving farther away from the trigger will likely make the situation easier for your dog.


  • Intensityhow potent is the trigger (strength, degree, volume)?
    • Are there noises involved?
      • How quiet or loud are they?
    • Is the trigger moving?
      • How slow/fast?
      • Is it sudden/unexpected?
      • Direction of movement? (Laterally, towards/away from the dog, etc.)
    • Is there more than one trigger present?
    • If the trigger is a human, also consider:
      • Social pressures such as eye contact, talking to the dog, reaching toward the dog, leaning over the dog, body position (frontally oriented, sideways, back turned), sitting vs. standing, carrying objects, sunglasses/hats/bulky clothing, men (esp. with facial hair) vs. women, novel features…
    • If the trigger is another dog, also consider:
      • Social pressures such as eye contact, pulling toward your dog, barking at your dog, smaller/larger in size, coat type, gait, male/female, altered/unaltered, color, sitting/standing/lying down, body positioning (frontally oriented, sideways, back turned), novel features…


  • Durationhow long is the trigger present for?
    • Does it remain in sight for an extended period of time, or only appear briefly?
      • For noises, consider duration of the sound.







REMEMBER: Desensitization is NOT just about exposure. Forcing your dog to deal with his triggers at a level that is likely to cause negative emotions and behaviors is not necessary, helpful, or kind. Doing this is risky, and may even cause the problem to worsen.

In order for this process to be effective, you MUST:

  • Work at your dog’s pace
    • Create situations where your dog is able to remain relaxed and comfortable in the presence of any triggers, by using the variables listed above (distance, intensity, duration) to manipulate the conditions (of the environment).
    • Monitor your dog’s body language for various signs of stress (even the subtle ones, such as increased respiratory rate). What changes do you see before, during, and after your dog reaches his threshold for a particular trigger, compared to his neutral, relaxed body language?
      • Ears – forward, back, flat to head, out to sides
      • Tail – higher or lower than normal
      • Eyes – avoiding eye contact, staring intensely/fixating, increase or decrease in blinking
      • Mouth – open or closed
      • Body – stiff/tense, standing taller, lowered/cowering, trembling, hackles up (pilo)

If you try to push your dog to cope with things that he is not yet comfortable with, you are setting your dog up to fail.


EXAMPLE: Your dog tends to react by growling and barking when new people come to your home, but he has never bitten anyone. During two previous training sessions, you have practiced introducing your dog to a new person. You started two houses away from your home, and slowly worked your way inside of the house with your dog on a leash, being careful to keep him far enough away from the person so that he was able to remain calm and relaxed throughout the process. A couple of new dog-loving friends are coming to visit, and they want to meet your dog.


How would you handle the situation? Would you…


A) Decide that since it has gone well during your two previous training sessions, it will be ok to just let your new friends into the house when they arrive.

B) Plan to attempt to recreate the previous training scenario but go through the steps quickly so you don’t keep your friends waiting too long.

C) Let your friends know that your dog needs to be introduced in a specific way because he can be fearful of new people, and suggest that – if they don’t mind being patient and following some very specific instructions – they may be able to meet him eventually, but it may take a few visits before they can actually interact with him.

D) Opt to avoid letting your new friends meet your dog, at least for now, because you are unsure about whether or not they will take the process seriously and be able to refrain from looking at, talking to, or touching your dog before he is comfortable with that.

If you have not already figured it out, A and B would likely set your dog up to fail. But why?

A) When working on desensitization, we are attempting to change the dog’s emotional response towards something that he currently finds stressful. This process takes time, particularly if the dog has been rehearsing the unwanted behaviors for a long time. In this scenario, you have only previously had two practice sessions with your dog. Even if they went very well, two sessions is not likely to be enough to change your dog’s response to “strangers” coming into the house. Additionally, you have not yet practiced this particular scenario; your previous sessions started outside of the house with your dog on leash and a single person at a distance. Here, your dog is loose inside of the house and at least two people may suddenly appear at the front door (decrease in distance + increase in intensity = way more difficult!). Dogs need to practice learned behaviors in a variety of circumstances in order to for generalization to occur.

B) What is your dog telling you? Remember, moving too quickly will likely result in your dog experiencing stress, anxiety, fear and/or aggression. If you do notice any unwanted responses, you need to adjust the distance, intensity, and/or duration to make the situation easier for your dog to succeed. Additionally, just because a dog has never bitten anyone in the past does not guarantee that he will not bite someone in the future.


What should you do instead?


In this example, your best options may be to:

C) Ask your friends to participate in your dog’s training, perhaps one person at a time to start, and set up situations similar to your previous training sessions, progressing through the hierarchy at your dog’s pace.

D) Simply acknowledge, as an alternative decision, that this may not be the best time to train, and opt to just prevent/avoid the unwanted behaviors. In other words, come up with a management strategy, such as meeting your friends elsewhere, without your dog. Or, if your dog is comfortable being confined in another room, you might put him in there – before your friends arrive – so you can avoid the unwanted behaviors altogether (HINT: A food puzzle or desirable chew bone may help keep your dog occupied, while white noise such as TV or music can help mask talking and other sounds that your dog may hear).

As you have hopefully gathered by now, you will need to carefully monitor your dog’s body language any time a trigger is present, as this is what will tell you if the situation is:

  • Too easy – dog does not notice the trigger.
  • Too difficult – dog is hyper-fixated on (or intentionally avoiding) the trigger, unable to disengage easily even with prompting, and/or showing signs of stress, anxiety, fear, aggression, or other unwanted responses.
  • Suitable for learning – dog shows mild (often occasional) interest in the trigger, and is not showing signs of stress, anxiety, fear, or aggression.

He may look at the trigger every so often for relatively short periods of time, and may even air-scent towards it to gather information (or perk up his ears slightly, especially if there is an auditory stimulus), but his body language should indicate that he is free from tension and other signs of stress, and he should be able to disengage (dismiss/look away) from the trigger easily on his own without help.

Option ‘D’ may not necessarily teach your dog how to respond differently when people come over (that’s what training is for), HOWEVER, it will prevent rehearsal of the undesirable behaviors, which can cause the problem to worsen.

You MUST manage your dog and his environment during all times when you cannot actively teach an alternative response!




  • Consistency is critical…
    • It is extremely difficult to create new associations and new responses to the things that he currently finds stressful, if they continue to be stressful!
    • We are trying to establish predictability for your dog, to help him learn to be more comfortable around his triggers from start to finish. If you cannot honor what it takes for your dog to remain under threshold in the presence of his triggers, you cannot expect his responses toward them to improve.


 There are ways that we can manage the dog – such as putting him on a leash to prevent him from moving too close to a trigger – and also ways that we can manage the environment – such as choosing locations where your dog is likely to be able to remain under threshold.


  • The environment matters…

When training your dog, you must always consider whether or not the environment is conducive to his learning. If you are attempting to train in a location where you have little or no control over the distance, intensity, or duration of your dog’s triggers, you are setting your dog up to fail.


EXAMPLE: Your dog tends to growl, bark, and lunge at other dogs on walks. You continue to walk your dog around your busy neighborhood where the streets are very narrow, even though you know that your dog can only remain calm and relaxed (under threshold) when he is at least 50ft. away from an unfamiliar dog.

Please do not make this process harder on yourself (and on your dog). Remember some of the key points discussed above, in regards to strategic and gradual exposure to triggers, management in between these moments, and consistency to create predictability with experiences?

Think of your carefully executed training sessions as deposits into a “progress account.” When you train under appropriate conditions, and manage your dog during times when you cannot actively train, you advance towards desirable changes in your dog’s behavior. When you fail to manage appropriately or push your dog beyond what he is ready for, your dog will likely experience those undesirable emotions, rehearse those unwanted behaviors, and you will end up withdrawing from this same account. More withdrawals than deposits will quickly produce a zero or even a negative balance in your dog’s progress account. That hardly makes the time, effort, and financial investment you put into training worth it, right?

Hopefully you can see how lack of proper management and poor application of training techniques will significantly slow, and possibly prevent, any progress towards desirable changes in behavior

Proper application of various behavior modification protocols will take some practice in order to be able to execute them well. Take some time each day to simply observe your dog and pay attention to what he looks like when he is in a comfortable, familiar environment. How does this compare to his body language when you take him outside for a walk, or in other environments when NO triggers are present? Being able to read and understand subtle changes in your dog’s body language is critical, as this skill will help you determine how much you can increase the difficulty level (and how quickly) during training, and will provide you with insight as to whether or not your dog is stressed in a particular moment.

Know that there will be instances when “real life” takes over and a situation presents itself that you may not have planned for or expected. Do not panic… but please help your dog. Try to do what you can to minimize the damage and reduce the amount of time your dog spends over threshold. Kindly interrupt your dog (call him, make a kissy noise, whistle, etc.) and move farther away from the trigger, if possible. Use the experience to help you improve – is there anything you might do differently next time? Cross the street before walking by the house with barking dogs in the yard, or take a different route altogether? Have some highly valued** treats or your dog’s favorite toy within reach, just in case you need to distract him? Avoid repeating the same mistakes if you can help it; change the conditions. You have to change the environment, including what you do, to change your dog’s behavior.

** Highly valued according to your dog. The value of something is determined by the individual at that moment in time, and may change depending on various conditions, including the effort required to obtain it as well as its novelty.


You will find that the more aware you become of your dog’s individual needs, the more accurately and efficiently you can implement the training techniques. You will eventually get faster with both your physical responses and in knowing how to best help your dog in a given moment to avoid potential setback. A qualified professional can really help you make a difference here, not only to help get you started, but to help you make adjustments along the way as you and your dog progress through the hierarchy!

In addition to working with a qualified dog trainer – one who truly understands the science behind effective behavior change, and employs the most positive, least intrusive solutions as possible – it may also be wise to seek the help of a veterinary behaviorist. It is always recommended that you rule out medical causes for behaviors at the beginning of any behavior modification plan. Additionally, just as humans can have various disorders relating to anxiety or other psychological factors that make certain emotional responses or behaviors more probable (or cause them to worsen), so can our pets! Sadly there are no magic pills to serve as a quick fix for these types of behavior problems, so medications alone are not likely to simply “turn off” certain behaviors. There are some cases, however, where the use of certain medications may actually be necessary, in conjunction with behavior modification, to facilitate learning and improve your dog’s quality of life.

While nobody can uninstall an emotion, such as anger or fear, from an animal (including humans), we can change the trigger-response relationship using proven, science-based tools such as desensitization and counter conditioning. Animals will always experience emotions and use their behavior to act on their environment, but with proper implementation of these procedures, you can teach your dog that what was once a threat, is no longer a concern. Doing so makes it less likely that the dog will behave in a fearful, anxious, or aggressive manner, and can result in the behavioral changes that you may be seeking.




  • Determine your dog’s triggers – what are they?
  • Observe your dog – learn to read your dog’s body language; observe and compare changes that may occur in the presence of triggers.
  • Seek the help of qualified professionals – this may be essential to maximize success.
  • Create a hierarchy of least challenging to most challenging conditions for each of your dog’s triggers, and the various components (distance, intensity, duration) that may affect the level of difficulty.
  • Work at your dog’s pace to set him up for success – increase the level of difficulty gradually, but be careful not to push your dog beyond what he can handle comfortably.
  • Be consistent and manage appropriately plan ahead and come up with suitable management strategies that will prevent your dog from rehearsing undesirable behaviors when you are not prepared to train an alternative response.
  • Choose locations wisely – avoid environments where you have little or no control over your dog’s triggers and their distance, intensity, or duration.
  • Learn from your mistakes – if something does not go well, think about what you might change or do differently if a similar situation occurs in the future.
    • Add to your dog’s “progress account,” instead of withdrawing from it!
  • Be patient – this is not always easy. Some issues may be resolved after a few weeks, while others will require lifelong management. Getting frustrated with your dog will not make things better. Start by understanding that your dog may never be like any dog you have ever had before. Accept his needs as an individual, and focus on improving your dog’s quality of life as much as possible!






Chance, P. Learning and behavior. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage learning, 2014. Print.

Friedman, SG. Functional assessment: Hypothesizing predictors and purposes of behavior to improve behavior-change plans.” APDT Journal (2009).

Friedman SG, Haug L. From parrots to pigs to pythons: Universal principles and procedures of learning. In: Tynes VV, ed. The Behavior of Exotic Pets. Blackwell Publishing, in press.

Illustration by Lili Chin (; created from Suzanne Clothier’s article, “Understanding Thresholds.”         



Comments are closed.