Behavior Modification: Desensitization

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Dogs that suffer from anxiety disorders tend to be abnormally afraid of certain stimuli, like noises or objects, or experiences, like having their owner leave home. This over sensitivity expresses itself as panic and aggressive and / or destructive behaviors.

Desensitization is the process of very gradually exposing an animal to the stimulus or situation which they are extremely afraid of. By slowly and safely exposing the animal to their fearful stimuli, the theory is that the fear will slowly lessen, until they no longer react with panic. For example, for noise phobias, audio recordings of thunderstorms and other fearful noises can be played and gradually increased in volume after each successful session. For separation anxiety, starting with short absences and gradually increasing the length of time away from the home can work.

Desensitization needs to be done in a formal manner - with regular, monitored sessions. Some studies suggest that long desensitization sessions (30 - 45 minutes) can be more effective than multiple short sessions. And it can take weeks, or months, to determine if it has been effective. For help with desensitization, it is recommended that a pet owner find a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB).

The theory behind behavioral desensitization is actually analogous to the proven success of allergy immunotherapy (allergy shots). Just as injections of small amounts of specific allergens causes the body to develop immunity to those allergens, gradual, controlled exposure to fearful stimuli can keep the nervous system from over-producing the hormones and neurochemicals which cause panic.


Treating noise phobias in dogs often requires the assistance of a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist. In cases like this, a program of systematic desensitization and counterconditioning will be arranged for your dog. Systematic desensitization is a treatment procedure used with humans and nonhumans to treat phobias. A fear hierarchy is first developed, in which all your dog’s triggers for fear are listed in order of increasing fear provocation. For example, noise-phobic dogs may be sensitive not only to fireworks but also to household noises like popping toasters or clicking clocks. These may trigger lower levels of fear than fireworks, but would be included as the first steps of a fear hierarchy.

At each level of the fear hierarchy, the dog is presented with low levels of the triggering noise while calm behavior is rewarded with food, massage, or toy play. The dog is not presented with increasingly anxiety-provoking noises until she has been made calm at the previous stage of treatment. For example, once a noise-phobic dog has been desensitized to household noises, she might be presented with a fireworks CD playing at the lowest volume possible. The owner and CAAB work together to keep her relaxed and/or playful while the CD plays. Once she has achieved calm behavior for a period of time, the volume on the CD is gradually increased. Eventually, the noises are presented at full volume while the dog happily chases after a ball, eats bits of chicken, or rolls over for belly rubs.

Treatment for noise phobias typically requires a minimum of 6-8 weeks of treatment, and may require many months to achieve calm behavior at full noise intensity. The work required of owners is not insignificant, and regular conditioning exercises must be arranged. With this sort of commitment by pet owners, however, treatment often is successful. Although most dogs will never enjoy a 4th of July fireworks display quite like we humans do, we can work to ensure that they are happy to find a place to lay down with a bone and lick their way through Independence Day.

Written by Megan E. Maxwell, PhD

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