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What is Desensitization?

Many first-time dog owners are told to socialize their puppy at a young age, this is a crucial step to building a strong developed dog and is useful to gain social neutrality, however what is it that makes socialization so special?

The answer is desensitization, that’s right, the sole purpose of getting your dog out and about it so that they can experience the world around them and become desensitized to the many different sights smells and noises in their environment.

So, what exactly is desensitization in dog training? Well its simply the act of repeating exposure to a stimulus in order to eliminate any response towards that exposure. Don’t get this confused with counter conditioning, which is taking something with a bad association and turning it into a good association.

Let me bring up an example from my human past to help understand desensitization a little better. Growing up as a child I lived in a house that was right next to a train track, every few nights the train would come by late at night making lots of noise.

“Desensitization is a powerful tool when developing a puppy or even an adult dog.”

growing up I never really was bothered by the train coming through during the nighttime and many times even forgot that a train track existed so close to my house. When my friends would have sleepovers, I remember they would always complain about not getting any sleep due to the train at night, to which I would reply “what train?”

In this example I was desensitized as a child at a young age to block out and ignore the train as it came through at night, my friends on the other hand were not desensitized so it than became a nuisance to them.

Desensitization is a powerful tool when developing a puppy or even an adult dog. By exposing a dog to the environment and the various things in that environment they become a better well-rounded dog.

The more things the dog is exposed to and desensitized to then the better they will be able to generalize new sights sounds and smells that they may experience later in life. So, what is the best way to help desensitize your dog to their environment?

Many people believe that the best way to do so is to have the puppy engage with the environment and build positive associations with it, however this is not the case.

Remember desensitization is repeated exposure to a stimulus in order to eliminate any response to that stimuli. A dog who is excitedly pulling you to go play with another dog is not desensitized to that other dog, rather they have developed a positive association which leads to them misbehaving.

In order to desensitize the dog their needs to be no association with the stimuli, both good and bad, rather those sights sounds and smells should be ignored.

“One of the most useful ways desensitization can be used is to eliminate fear.”

Desensitization is a very powerful tool in dog training and its proper use can prevent and eliminate many unwanted behaviors in dogs. One of the most useful ways desensitization can be used is to eliminate fear.

Many psychologists will say the first step to dealing with fear is to ignore it, that’s right if you ignore it long enough then eventually you forget why you are afraid in the first place.

This same concept works for dogs. Not only does desensitization work for fear-based problems but other issues as well.

Dogs who do not do well around children or other small animals could benefit from utilizing desensitization, learning to ignore the things that may lead the dog to display loading behaviors will prevent the dog from reacting in that situation. Another important factor with desensitizing a dog to something is that it can prevent stacking.

Stacking is essentially when a dog is exposed to constant stress triggers that eventually add on top of one another until the dog explodes in an undesirable behavior. When the dog is desensitized to the things that would normally lead to stress then it does not have to worry about them being stacked.

Unfortunately, there are many instances where people fail to desensitize their dogs and they then develop a fear response to certain stimuli. One of the biggest ones seen is that of the dreaded nail clippers.

Many dogs tremble at just the sight of nail clippers in the hands of their owners, and rightfully so, each time those clippers are shown they know what is about to happen next.

“Using this method, you can help your dog through the stress that they deal with and get them to overcome the fears that they have.”

So why not start taking those clippers out on a regular basis, just randomly walk around the house with them in your hands, pet your dog while holding them, teach your dog that the clippers are nothing to be feared and reward the dog for not showing any signs of fear.

Eventually you can take this a step further and begin petting the dog and holding the dog’s paws while having the clippers in your hands. This is but one example of how desensitizing your dog to things can drastically alter their outlook on it and reduce the amount of stress that they deal with daily. Using this method, you can help your dog through the stress that they deal with and get them to overcome the fears that they have.

 Desensitization is not the sole tool that can be used when helping a stressed dog, but it is one of the foundational building blocks that can be used to get a healthy and happy pup.

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