Systematic Desensitisation


We trainers and dog-guardians talk a lot about “getting closer,  gradually   …but what does that mean? Let’s really break this down.   


The word “systematic” is often overlooked, and it’s a shame! It’s 50% of this equation so it really holds some weight. To be systematic is to have a plan, to be methodical. Far too often, I see people (guardians and trainers alike), flying by the seat of their pants and not following a plan. Heck, I still fall into this trap more often than I’d like to admit!   


In psychology, desensitisation is a process that reduces the emotional responsiveness to a stimulus after repeated exposure. Now, let’s not kid ourselves and put this in the same bucket as “flooding”  (think Fear Factor, the TV show). Desensitisation is the opposite of “sensitisation” – to become more  sensitive.   

So let’s put the two together and we have a process that  methodically  reduces the emotional responsiveness to a stimulus after repeated exposure.   

I want to give you a nice clear example that has nothing to do with reactivity but is the most perfect example of systematic desensitisation. 

When we work with clients whose dogs are experiencing home-alone issues (Separation Anxiety or Isolation Distress), we are extraordinarily systematic from the get-go. We assess the dog and their threshold to find out how long they are comfortable being left alone, and then we work from a point just below that so we know the dog is not learning while feeling panicked. So if the dog is comfortable being left alone for 5 seconds, we work from 2-3 seconds, upward. If the dog is anxious when we close the door, we work from the pre-departure cues (keys, shoes, coat, purse, etc), upward. If the dog is comfortable being left alone for 18 minutes, we work from 15 minutes upward. See what I mean? No learner can acquire a new skill and retain information when they are stressed, so we have to work from a point of comfort. 

Now, with Separation Anxiety, we are often told to leave the dog for 5 minutes and return. Leave for 10 minutes and return. Leave for 20 minutes and return. Etc… If the dog is panicking at 30 seconds, no wonder this protocol doesn’t work! It may be somewhat systematic but it does not take into account the learner’s starting point. We might think we are desensitising the dog, but in fact, we are sensitising the dog to absences through this stressful experience as they learn that every time we leave, we leave for longer and longer. 

Keeping all of this in mind, let’s take a look at how we desensitise a dog to absences in a systematic manner that takes into consideration their threshold.

Lessons in this Course: