Systematic desensitisation therapy for dogs
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Systematic desensitisation therapy for dogs

The phrase ‘systematic desensitisation therapy’ may contain a lot of syllables and sound rather convoluted, but in simple terms it can best be described as using repeated and progressive exposure to a source of stress or fear in order to bring about a reduction in fear or negative responses, due to developing familiarity with the source of the problem.It is reported to work well in humans, to help them to deal with phobias and other irrational fears, such as arachnophobia- the fear of spiders- but it can also be used to great effect in dogs and other animals as well. Systematic desensitisation therapy is becoming more and more commonly recommended for nervous or frightened dogs, and works by means of counter-conditioning the fear or stress response with positive reinforcement in the presence of the object or event that leads to fear, such as a treat or praise.If your dog is more of a scaredy-cat than a canine, or their irrational fears and phobias are making life difficult for both you and them, then systematic desensitisation therapy is certainly worthy of consideration. Read on to find out more!

What is the theory behind systematic desensitisation therapy?

Systematic desensitisation therapy takes the approach that the fear response is composed of a variety of separate elements that affect multiple senses at the same time, leading to a panic or fear response in the dog due to being unable to adequately process all of the stimulus that they are receiving.For instance, in the case of fear of fireworks, a common source of fear in dogs and many other animals, the component parts can be broken down as:

  • The visual effect of the fireworks in the sky
  • The loud and often sudden noises that accompany fireworks
  • The unusual smells of smoke and burning
  • The fact that fireworks happen relatively rarely, and so come as a shock to the dogs that are affected by them

Systematic desensitisation therapy first of all breaks down each of these elements into individual events; such as a loud noise; and then seeks to slowly and gradually expose the dog to progressively louder sounds over the course of time, while positively reinforcing the presence of the noise with praise and treats. Starting off at a very low level; i.e., a noise that is actually not loud or unnerving at all; is vital, in order to build up the dog’s positive or neutral associations with progressively increasing noise gradually. This can take several weeks or even months to achieve, and rushing the process is counterproductive and can cause more problems than it solves.The process is then repeated with each of the other component parts, finally in combination, with the end goal of presenting a dog that is un-phased or only affected in a very small way by fireworks as a whole.

How does systematic desensitisation for dogs actually work in practice?

First of all, the owner or trainer must find a way of convincingly artificially creating the effect of one of the stimulus that is being targeted; for sound, for instance, this is relatively straightforward; an audio recording of pops and bangs should be easy enough to source, and the volume of it can be adjusted to suit the training stages. For other elements of the mix, this can be rather more complicated!It is also important to note that, much as pushing too fast, too soon can have an adverse effect on the process, so too should exposure to the actual full stimulus itself should be avoided at all costs. Therefore, if you know that the cause of your dog’s phobia is specific to a certain place or time of year, you should avoid taking them to that place, or ensure that you begin training several months before the next manifestation of the event itself (bonfire night or New Years Eve, for instance) is likely to occur.Training a dog away from a fear or nervous response is an ongoing process that can take up a lot of time, and requires a significant amount of commitment to be made to doing so on an ongoing basis. Short, frequent exposure to the stimulus being targeted is important, even if this is just a couple of minutes every day, building up the volume or intensity very gradually.You may also want to give yourself and your dog a head start and a little helping hand along with the established procedures you are following. Consider adding a calming herbal supplement to their food, using a DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) collar or diffuser, and walking your dog before each session so that they are relaxed and not fizzing with nervous energy, which can of course work against you.

Is systematic desensitisation therapy always effective in dogs?

There is no go-to cure all for irrational fears and phobias in dogs, and so systematic desensitisation therapy is not a guaranteed method of fixing any existing problems. That being said, it does usually yield positive results to some extent when undertaken properly, and is widely recommended for dogs whose phobias are significant and pronounced.The most common reason for systematic desensitisation therapy in dogs failing, is due either to pushing too fast and so, undoing the groundwork that has already been undertaken; or not committing to continuing the process for the necessary amount of time.

Can anybody try it, or do you need to hire a specialist?

With a little research and investigation, any committed dog owner can undertake systematic desensitisation therapy with their own dogs. It is important to gain a thorough understanding of the principles of the therapy and how it works before beginning, and to ensure that you have correctly pinpointed the fear triggers and broken them down into their component parts before you start.Professional canine behaviourists and trainers can also help with systematic desensitisation therapy, and you may wish to consider hiring an expert to perform an initial assessment of your dog, and to help you work out an action plan for how to proceed.

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