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January 21, 2022

Systematic Desensitization for Fear, Aggression, Excitement and Anxiety

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Written by: Lisa Porter
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Many of you have asked how I specifically deal with fear, aggression, excitement & anxiety in dogs. While it always depends on the issue, the method I use the most is called Systematic Desensitization. Desensitization basically means to make less sensitive. Dogs that are overly sensitive to any reasonable stimuli need gradual, structured exposure too it. Our goal is to eliminate or reduce the exaggerated, excited, or emotion-based reaction that our dogs have to specific things—be it other animals, kinds of people (like children or men in uniform), certain places or events, or certain noises. Systematic desensitization is a structured, PROACTIVE plan. It starts with showing or exposing your dog to a less threatening/challenging version of the thing he fears or dislikes. You weaken the trigger by using what I call the four “S” variables. 1. is Size (how big is the stimuli) 2. is Speed (how fast is it moving) 3. is Sound (how loud is it, or high pitched) and 4. is Space (how far away is it). By using these four variables, you can determine what your dog is most sensitive too, for example, they may react to space and sound, but not size or speed of the object/person/dog, etc… and adjust your training accordingly.


Over time, as your dog relaxes, you gradually make the thing (person, animal, place, object, noise, event, etc.) stronger again by, for example, bringing it closer, increasing its volume or having it move. So a systematic desensitization plan starts with exposure to the least scary/exciting version of the trigger and gradually moves to stronger versions until full or normal exposure is reached. What you must NOT do is let your dog run from the object. Give them a dog bed or blanket, and have them stay on it. They can ignore it, but not run from it or try to attack it (fight/flight). Neither of those reactions allows them to experience the stimuli, but by having them stay in one spot and observe, they learn self-control and eventually relax. Half the fear is the fear of the UNKNOWN Here is a great chart, more tips to come!!

~ Lisa




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