Habituation and de-sensitization in dogs

Reggie was already afraid of fireworks when he was adopted. That first Fourth of July, he was in the backyard and heard the fireworks. He hid in the corner of the deck, curled in a little ball. He had completely shut down and wouldn’t come out until he heard the door open and ran back in the house. Once in the house, he hid under the kitchen table.

What to do? We did what a lot of probably well intentioned, but uninformed, dog owners do. We took him back outside and played catch. We tried to run around with him. We tried to give him treats when he would actually pick up the ball. Anything to distract him from the sound and engage him in another activity. When he did something else besides hide, we rewarded him.

What we were doing was totally wrong. This process is called flooding. Psychologists do this with humans all the time- exposures to extreme fears (phobias). But Reggie is not human, and exposures to extreme intensities of unavoidable fear stimuli in dogs will only make the fear more deep seated. We were making Reggie worse. Celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan uses flooding with problem dogs all the time, he makes statements like he is waiting for the dog to “give in” or “release” the fear. I stress that this is a TV show and research I have found all over the place confirms that this is absolutely NOT the way to prevent or treat fear or anxiety in a dog. Ok, moving on…

Reggie was getting worse, and we were unknowingly causing it. Every year, Fourth of July was a nightmare. There was about a month when neighborhood festivities would be traumatic for him. It got to the point where he wouldn’t go outside once it was dark in the summer. The sound of bonfires- the crackle of a fire- also make him skittish. Gunfire also obviously sends him running. Last summer, he had to be on Xanax for about a month. It gets worse every year.

So what should have been done? Habituation is preventive and de-sensitization is fixing. Habituation is the process of a gradually reduced response to a repeated stimulus. De-sensitization is the opposite. This is the process of making a dog less sensitive (reactive) to a stimulus by reducing an already present reaction. In Reggie’s case, a plan for de-sensitization should have been in place.

This used to be Reggie's mouse toy...

This used to be Reggie’s mouse toy…

Think of habituation like this. You give your dog a new toy. He is pumped. He tears in to it, and the first few times it is his favorite toy. Until he gets bored and then it is no longer the favorite. If nothing is different or unchanged about that toy- an odor, it doesn’t produce food, the squeaker doesn’t come out, etc.- it’s not worth bothering with. Habituation reduces a dog’s fear and anxiety- as long as there is no actual consequences for the dog. Habituation training means exposing the dog to levels of whatever you want to habituate them to at a level low enough to not cause a response, and rewarding appropriately. Very, very gradually increase the levels. Note that trainers will tell you increasing the levels too much at once or too rapidly to push the dog over that fear threshold will set you back at best, and possibly cause damage. Your goal is to have a dog that produces no response to whatever it is you are working on- the vacuum, fireworks, gunfire, the blowdryer, anything.

De-sensitization is the opposite process. You’ve already got a problem. Maybe a big problem, like I do. Sensitization is when a dog’s exposure is too intense and it panics because it cannot escape the perceived fear. A particularly nervous dog or an especially intense first exposure can react more and more intensely each time they are exposed. Once this pattern has been ingrained in the dog, it only takes very low levels of the stimulus to cause a fear response and can be almost impossible to habituate. Unfortunately, this is what we did to Reggie.

A few weeks ago I was walking Reggie and somewhere in my neighborhood someone was apparently testing out target practice. Just as an aside- I don’t live in the country; I live in a suburban, city environment. This was weird. There were multiple shots. Reggie immediately hit the ground- spread eagle all four legs on the sidewalk. Then he tried to turn around and run back home.

Knowing what I know now, I decided to try something different. I got him to stop and petted him slowly, with long soft strokes (no talking). This type of petting is known to slow heart rate and breathing. After about one minute of this I  continued to walk forward (towards home). He was pulling and straining so we stopped and did the petting routine again. Again we walked, and he was calmer; tail was completely between his legs but he wasn’t straining at the leash. I walked a little and turned around to see if he was calm enough to continue our walk.

Reggie afraid to come downstairs

Reggie afraid to come downstairs

When we got to the point where the gunshots went off he stopped and he wouldn’t continue. Hmm. I crossed the street and tried to continue that way. Nope he’s smart. I went around the block and tried to circumvent that spot. Nope he knows. We never got passed that spot. When we got home he hid upstairs and wouldn’t come down for a few hours.

Bottom line for Reggie, he came to us with a problem. We were uneducated and made the problem worse. At 6 1/2 years old, he will never recover or become de-sensitized to the sounds of fireworks or gunshots. The best I can do at this point is halt the damage that we have done, and not do more. There are so many important things to remember with dog ownership; habituation to common fear inducing sounds is one of the most important because it’s a problem that can get worse.

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