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Desensitizing A Dog To Inanimate Objects Or Noises
Another behavioral excercise from my friend Virginia Wind
Desensitizing A Dog To Inanimate Objects Or Noises]
Suggested reading: The Cautious Canine by Dr. Patricia McConnell; Click To Calm by Emma Parsons; Scaredy Dog by Ali Brown;
The easiest and kindest way to help a dog overcome fear of inanimate objects is to desensitize the dog to the object by making the object a good thing instead of a scary thing. This same technique can be used for scary noises, have the dog far enough away from the noise so the dog is not reacting when you start.
For example, if your dog is afraid of blowing plastic bags:
Get lots (and I mean LOTS, being stingy is useless), of small, easily swallowed, tasty treats. Cut up chicken, cheese, cold cuts, or hotdogs are good. If you have a puppy, chicken or cheese is less likely to upset their tummies. If treats upset your dog’s digestive tract, then use your dog’s kibble instead. Measure out your dog’s meals in the morning and during the day use the kibble instead of treats. There is no law anywhere in the universe that says your dog has to eat out of a bowl or eat a whole meal at one time.
IMPORTANT: put the inanimate object far enough away from your dog so that your dog is not reacting to it or move your dog far enough away so your dog is not reacting. It is critical that you start at a distance where the dog is not reacting.
Start tossing food towards the plastic bag, about 6-12” at a time. Watch your dog. If your dog starts to get nervous, back off a few feet and toss the treats only a few inches closer.
Do this for about 5 minutes at a time and always quit on a positive. If your dog is nervous, then back up the distance until your dog is comfortable and then stop. You can do one session per day or multiple sessions per day, but leave at least 5 minutes between sessions.
Periodically, give your dog a “break”. For example, if you started 20’ away from the object and have moved up to tossing food 10’ away, toss a few handfuls at 15’. Giving dogs a “break” helps the process go faster.
Once the dog is happily munching on the food that you are dropping right next to the plastic bag, start to move it a little bit with your feet, dropping food very quickly.
If your dog gives the plastic bag the hairy eyeball, move it a little bit slower.
Gradually increase the amount of movement, dropping food right next to the plastic bag until your dog doesn’t care how fast the bag is moving.
Crouch down and pick up the bag. A bag in the air is not the same as a bag on the ground to some dogs, so don’t move it, just hold it and drop food on the ground.
Gradually start to move the bag until you are flapping the bag like it was in a hurricane and your dog is eagerly scarfing up the food you’re dropping on the ground.
IMPORTANT: always be the tortoise, not the hare. The slower you go, the faster you will go. The smaller the steps are the more chance your dog has to be successful at each step. I know this feels like it will take forever, but if you move in very small steps, it could take less than 15 minutes, depending on how reactive the dog is.
When you are walking your dog and a garbage bag is flapping in the wind, to some dogs this is not the same as a garbage bag in your house. You may have to toss food at the garbage bag. You may have to toss food at several flapping garbage bags before your dog generalizes all flapping plastic bags.
Once your dog has generalized, you never have to throw food at flapping bags again.
The other good thing is that if your dog is skitty about a lot of things, the more things you throw food at, the faster your dog will stop being fearful of the inanimate object or noise and stop being afraid. It’s like a game – Mom throws food at things and then I know they are safe. You’ll find that often one handful of food is all it takes.
Technical behavioral science stuff! Read on only if you’re interested.
Desensitization (or Counter-Conditioning) done like this uses Classical Conditioning, aka Pavlovian Conditioning. Classical Conditioning pairs two otherwise unrelated objects and gives them a relationship. Pavlov did this by ringing a bell and then feeding. After a while, the dogs started to salivate when the bell rang. Bells and food are not related but by pairing them, Pavlov created a Conditioned Emotional Response (CER), in this case, salivation.
You are pairing the B.S.T. (big scary thing) with food, which has a good emotional value to dogs and creating a good CER.
The word emotional is used because Classical Conditioning happens in the ‘emotional’ part of the brain, not the ‘thinking’ part of the brain. Salivation is not something we (or dogs) can control.
CER’s can be emotionally soothing or emotionally distressing. As an example of a “distressing” CER, our blood pressure goes up when we are driving and we see a radar trap. We don’t think: “Oh, there’s a radar trap, I’d better make my blood pressure go up”.
By pairing the B.S.T with food, the B.S.T. becomes a good thing. Like walking into someone’s home and inhaling the aroma of baking bread gives us that warm and fuzzy feeling. And maybe makes us salivate too ;-)