This is a behavioral therapy for dogs that was perfected by Joseph Wolpe, a psychiatrist. The aim of the therapy was to bring about a change in anxiety and fear based responses to particular stimuli. This therapy was conducted on humans. This same technique was copied and is now being used on dogs.

Desensitization therapy for dogs has become a vital tool for dog trainers to help dogs that fear certain objects, humans or other dogs. This therapy has proven successful and has become widely accepted among dog trainers.

How it Works

Systematic desensitization is carried out by exposing the subject to a low-level trigger that brings about an unwanted response from the dog in some scenarios. The distance and amount of stimulus are adjusted gradually to the point that the dog is able to handle the situation emotionally.

Systematic desensitization for dogs is the direct opposite of another training technique, the flooding technique. In the latter technique, the dog is subjected to the highest level of stimulus. This causes the dog to bring out the highest level of response. The dog undergoes that particular stimulus to the point they realize that there is nothing dangerous about that particular situation.


Locate the stressor (trigger)

This is the first step in the whole therapy. Identify the particular stressor that causes your dog to react. These triggers are unique to each dog and may be related to certain objects, situations, environments or animals. Get to understand the particular stimulus that causes feelings of fear and anxiety in your dog.

Create a training plan

Creating a plan will help you run into less issues during the therapy:

  • Create levels: Every plan should consist of levels. the number of levels needed will be determined by the issue, dog’s temperament among other issues. The most important factor in each level is the distance. Once your dog appears comfortable with one distance, reduce the distance to the stimulus by about 5 feet. If the dog reacts fearfully, go back to the previous successful distance and try again using half of the new distance (2.5 feet). Adjust the distance according to the progress of the dog.
  • Organizing the environment: In planning the whole exercise, ensure you plan your routine and environment in such a manner that your dog will not be exposed to the triggering stimulus which will bring about responses of fear or anxiety. Your dog should only be exposed to such stimulus in a controlled rehabilitation scenario.
  • Creating situations: Since desensitization is a form of classical conditioning, a certain number of repetitions is required for the process to be successful. This is a great challenge as you have to create situations in which the dog will be exposed to the concerned stimulus at a particular distance for a number of times before progressing to the next level.
  • This process consumes a significant amount of time and may require the assistance of other people. Since the situations may be hard to organize, a lot of patience is required. Unfortunately, one of the worst mistakes people make is rushing things through. Rushing will only prove counterproductive as you will have to take steps back so as to get back on track.

Find a safe distance

After identifying the triggers and creating the plan, the next step would be to find a safety distance. This is the distance in which the dog displays mild to no response to the trigger. Work with the distance at which the dog displays no response to the stimulus.

One step at a time

The key to experiencing success with the various therapies for dogs is working on one criterion at a time. Do not expose the dog to an environment that contains more than one trigger. Work on each trigger separately. Working on different stimuli at a time will only work to overwhelm the dog and slow down the entire process of desensitization.

Employ calming signals

It is always important to remember that dog owners form a crucial link in the dog’s behavior. Dogs react to the body signals and energy emitted by their owners. At times, when dogs start to act up, their owners become frustrated, angry or overwhelmed, releasing a lower type of energy. This type of energy sends the wrong message to the dog.

Try as hard as possible to remain calm in such times. Calmness works greatly to help the dog deal with behavior problems. Any change in emotions by the owner always informs the dog that something is wrong. This causes the dog to respond to the situation.


The particular steps to be applied during systematic desensitization vary depending on the particular situation and the level of fear experienced by the dog. All factors considered, the only important thing you need is to understand the emotional state of your dog. Systematic desensitization is designed to teach the subject to act calm around a particular trigger. Also, the technique is effective since treats are used to help calm the dog. It does not make use of any kind of punishment.

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