Habituation vs Sensitization In Dog Training

I know some people who live not far from one of the flight paths going to and away from the airport. I remember us having a discussion one time about how annoying I thought it’d be to hear that loud noise so often. The response I would hear was the same response I got from […] The post Habituation vs Sensitization In Dog Training first appeared on So Much PETential.

Habituation vs Sensitization In Dog Training

I know some people who live not far from one of the flight paths going to and away from the airport. I remember us having a discussion one time about how annoying I thought it’d be to hear that loud noise so often. The response I would hear was the same response I got from people I know who live or work near a railroad crossing – that, ‘you get used to it.’ In this article, I hope to give you a better understanding of habituation vs sensitization and how it can impact your dog training.

When I sit by a swimming pool, I may initially be able to hear all of the conversations, the laughter, the kids screaming but within a habituation vs sensitization in dog training few minutes I can tune it out and focus on reading a book or lay back and close my eyes.

The scientific term for what has happened in those cases is habituation.

Simply stated, habituation occurs when we get used to something and its presence no longer means anything to us. Habituation can occur with our non-human animals as well.

Maybe your pet startled and barked the first time you turned on the electric can opener but over the next few times of hearing it, your dog began to just look in the direction of the noise, and soon began ignoring it all together. That is habituation happening.

Or let’s say the first time your dog heard the dogs barking across the street that it ran to the window (or fence line if outside) to bark back but over time, with lots of repeated exposure, your dog began ignoring their barking. Again, that is habituation at work.

While noticing new and novel stimulus is important to an animal’s survival (after all, that stimulus could potentially be dangerous and necessary to avoid), once repeated exposures indicate to the animal that whatever it is, it doesn’t pose a threat, the initial startle or flight response is no longer needed.

In some instances, however, rather than habituating to that environmental event, the animal’s response actually strengthens with repeated exposure. For example, if a dog has had experience while walking on a leash that a big dog has come charging from around the back of a certain house to bark with a deep tone and jump on the fence, that the walking dog may begin breathing heavy, have increased heart rate, become hypervigilant, begin pulling on the leash, growling, or any number of other behaviors when you are blocks away from that house. A dog may pant and pace when its owner leaves the house, and over time, that dog may begin barking, destroying furniture and doorways or may vomit.

The scientific term for what has happened to those dogs is sensitization.

In the real world where we are bombarded with different stimulus all the time, it can be hard to predict with any given animal whether it will habituate or sensitize to something. Genetics, early socialization and past learning experience can all influence the response. Many times it is the over-the-top noises or environmental events that are more likely to cause sensitization with repeated exposure rather than habituation.

If you think sensitization is happening for your pet, be proactive in addressing it before it escalates. This can involve less intensive exposure to the trigger (such as at a distance or lower volume or static vs moving), gradually increasing intensity as your pet continues to be able to remain calm (ex. normal heart rate, loose body muscles, ability to turn back to you). It can also involve immediately following the exposure to the trigger with something your dog values.

As always, if this is an issue with which you need help, please reach out to me or seek out the assistance of another trainer who uses positive reinforcement based strategies.

Contact Cincinnati Certified Dog Trainer Lisa Desatnik

The post Habituation vs Sensitization In Dog Training first appeared on So Much PETential.