Socialization vs. Desensitization

One of the trainers in our network has a dog in training right now who, at about 6 months old, began to growl, bark and lunge at strangers while out on the leash. This behavior continued to escalate in intensity, and also spread to include reacting to other dogs as well. Two months later, it became clear that he was not going to outgrow this behavior, so his family called for help.

This dog is being desensitized to the presence of strangers in his home.
This dog is being desensitized to the presence of strangers in his home.

The dog world places such an emphasis on socialization, but it often overlooks the other side of the social behavior coin: desensitization.

Desensitizing a dog to a stimulus literally means making him less sensitive to the stimulus. Less sensitive means more comfortable, which results in less of a reaction.

There are dog training approaches that utilize desensitization only, but that’s not the most efficient way to go about it. Desensitization is only one component of changing a dog’s social behavior, but for the purposes of this article, it’s the component we’ll focus on.
Desensitizing involves exposing the dog to the stimulus, but below his reaction threshold. There are two critical components of effective desensitization: the first is to keep the dog just below this reaction threshold, and the second is to be patient.

Desensitization: Staying Below The Reaction Threshold

To explain the reaction threshold, we’ll take an example. Let’s say this particular dog reacts by growling and lunging toward people while out on the leash. We’ll take this dog into an environment where people are present, but we’ll stay far enough away that he doesn’t feel the need to react. That point – the point where one step closer will prompt a reaction from the dog, is the reaction threshold, or his “working distance.” This is where the desensitization work is most effective.
At this threshold, the dog has the opportunity to take in the stimulus without feeling so overwhelmed (or fearful, anxious, etc.) that he needs to react. Here, he has the opportunity to begin to relax in the presence of the stimulus and realize that it’s really no big deal after all. As he becomes more and more comfortable, this threshold gets closer and closer to the stimulus.

Desensitization: Patience is a Must! 

This does not happen overnight! This process happens over time. Patience is a virtue, and dog behavior modification is no exception. Why go through all this trouble? It’s important to take your time with desensitization in order to make behavior modification fair for the dog. These desensitization exercises give you the opportunity to reward your dog for making appropriate behavior choices in the presence of a stimulus, and most importantly, it allows him to develop a level of comfort around the stimulus.
A comprehensive dog behavior program will desensitize a dog to the presence of another.
A comprehensive dog behavior program will desensitize a dog to the presence of another.

Once you’ve given your dog some time to relax and take it in, now it’s time to start putting the dog to the test and go looking for trouble. At this point we’ll guide you through the process of tackling his reactivity head on, and reinforcing the choices he makes.

Finally, it is important to note that a well-rounded behavior modification plan includes a few more strategies in addition to desensitization. These strategies are equally as critical, and without them, results may vary. At best, using desensitization as the sole strategy to change behavior will take a long period of time; at worst, using just one strategy will be unsuccessful.
The real results come with a comprehensive training plan, and a commitment to consistency on your part. With these two tools in your pocket, your dog is capable of overcoming nearly any reaction!