For example, think about your own response to new sounds in your environment; maybe a loud plane flying overhead or a garbage truck in the alley at 6am or your shrieking newborn. The first time you heard those sounds, you and your central nervous system shouted, “WTF is that?!” But over time, as you became accustomed to hearing those sounds, your body’s response to them softened. This process of becoming acclimatized to a stimulus is called HABITUATION.

When to Use

Trainers might use habituation to help a dog overcome a fear of strangers. The trainer will introduce a stranger to the dog from several feet away and then reward the dog for holding back aggression and exhibiting calm behavior. Over time, the trainer will gradually move the stranger closer to the dog until he remains reasonably calm at any distance. Psychologists use this same technique with humans. Replace stranger with spider (or circus clown – you know who you are.)

While it seems as if your pup is being desensitized to the stimulus, that’s not exactly what’s happening in his brain. In scientific terms, desensitization is the term for a tangible, physical decrease in the response of your brain’s receptors. You can become physically desensitized to seeing in low levels of light when you’ve been exposed to an extremely bright environment, like when you’re temporarily blind after out of a dark movie theatre into bright sunlight. For those few seconds, your brain is physically unable to make out objects in low light. The receptors cannot take in the information.

Brain Games

The term habituation refers specifically to the mental process that makes you no longer consciously notice a particular stimulus. The stimulus essentially becomes background music. The noise is still there, and your ears are still hearing it, but your brain chooses mostly to ignore it. When he’s habituated to it, the receptors in your dog’s brain will still hear the guy outside with the leaf blower, but his response will be perked up ears instead of barking at the window like a maniac.

Well Adjusted

Habituation isn’t just about being mellow and well-adjusted. Scientifically it’s important to the survival of any living being. If we constantly reacted to every single stimulus, we wouldn’t be able to do anything productive and worse yet, that total distraction would probably make us les effective in the face of real danger.Dog and human alike, we all need to be able to automatically, meaning without conscious thought, identify imminent danger (bear!) vs. need to be aware of (moving vehicle) vs. not dangerous, can ignore (vacuum cleaner.)


While the habituation process itself is based in nurture, there is some nature involved. Like people, some dogs are naturally bold and inquisitive, and others are predisposed to be more anxious. Early socialization and habituation is especially helpful for these pups. Dogs who lack socialization early in life can be less able to cope with stress later on, which in turn, inhibits their ability to learn and to be guided by their owners.

Fear not, though. As with all training, with time, consistency and patience, you and your four legged friend will be calm, cool and collected in just about every situation.