Systematic desensitization – essential to reducing fear

Systematic desensitization is an essential part of your toolbox to reduce and eliminate fear.

I know, ten syllables. And yet, it’s one of the most important tools in animal training, so… let me explain it, and perhaps it will be easier to digest.

Let’s call it SD for short.

Systematic desensitization = graduated exposure and relaxation

Remember habituation?

Let’s go back to that model and look at what happens if rather than introducing a very aversive stimulus head on (the red circle, upper right, in the model), we start out by introducing it at a very low intensity, where we basically don’t see the animal responding all that much to it (the green circle to the lower left).

Say you want to habituate the animal to a stimulus that you suspect is really aversive.

Say, having nails clipped.

In Systematic Desensitization, the animal is exposed to low-intensity levels of the stimulus. Gradually over time, the exposure level is increased until finally the stimulus is introduced at full exposure, including perhaps a level that would originally have been very aversive. At each exposure level, the animal should initially not be over threshold, and relax completely before moving to the next level.

What might work is this: starting with low-intensity versions of the stimulus, allow the animal to become accustomed to it. For instance, simply handling feet, or paws, or talons (or even just holding your hand several feet away from the foot, paw or talon). Since you’re choosing an exposure that the animal isn’t reacting much to, you won’t see any fear response.

After a while, the animal relaxes (in the  illustration above, the green dot gradually turning neutral over time). Once the animal isn’t even reacting to this first step, move on.

This relaxation is one of the key features of SD. At every step of the way, the stimulus turns neutral, so the animal stops responding to it. Note that if you’re only using SD the stimulus becomes neutral, not nice (unlike when you’re using counterconditioning, which is often done in combination with SD).

Present the stimulus again, only a little bit closer, or louder, or more intense. For instance, looking at the clipper from a distance, or listening to the sounds it makes – from a distance. Allow the animal to habituate – again, look for relaxation. Don’t move on until the animal is completely relaxed with this level of intensity.

Then gradually increase the stimulus exposure. In the case of nail clipping, you might start with simply tapping the nails with the clipper. If the animal starts to show signs of tension, you might be advancing too quickly. The trick with systematic desensitization is going really slowly, perhaps taking several days or weeks. Exposure should barely be intense enough for the animal to notice the stimulus initially. It’s time to increase exposure once the animal is relaxed and no longer pays attention to the stimulus at the current level.

Finally, you clip the nail. Ideally, the animal actually doesn’t respond to the stimulus.

This is called graduated exposure, and it’s a key feature of SD. It’s also when people often go wrong, advancing too quickly (or not awaiting relaxation).

SD reduces the risk of sensitization and the other potential pitfalls of habituation.

With SD, potentially scary events are introduced gradually, allowing the animal to recover in between. Rather than overwhelming the animal with a new procedure, it is introduced in small steps, all the while staying below threshold.

You should be looking closely at the animal for signs indicating that she’s troubled. If she seems uncomfortable, you’re moving too fast.

Ideally, in systematic desensitization, the animal should stay more or less unaffected by the procedure. Yes, it’s kinda boring. Obviously, this would be impossible in painful procedures if all you’re doing is SD – SD alone works best with small fears, and unfortunately is no guarantee that sensitization won’t occur after all.

Fear of fireworks

One recent development is using SD in treating canine noise phobias. Certain classical piano pieces have been found to have a calming effect on 80% dogs (and yes, cats may also be calmed by specific cat-music!). Once the animal is in a relaxed state, offensive sounds such as fireworks or thunder is gradually introduced, masked by the soothing music. For instance, in these listening samples, low level fireworks are masked in a Gounoud piece, intermediate levels in an arabesque by Karganov, and higher levels in a waltz by Beethoven. These samples are from the Canine Noise Phobia treatment developed by dog trainer Victoria Stilwell in collaboration with concert pianist Lisa Spector and sound researcher Joshua Leeds. Note that the music is used in combination with other techniques – learn more here!

SD has been shown to potentially be a critical element in treating separation-related destructive behaviour in dogs. One study found that SD reduced the frequency of destructive separation-related behaviour in dogs to 1/4th of baseline rates – and the level of intensity of these behaviours were reduced to less than half of levels seen prior to training.

Although SD is a useful technique in a number of settings, it will take time, so used as a stand alone procedure it’s probably not appropriate in many cases, such as in the veterinary clinic. It is most often combined with counterconditioning (CC) in such settings – I expand more on the combined procedure (SD/CC) here.

… What’s your experience? Have you successfully used SD without CC – or what types of problems have you had? Let us know in the comment section below! 

I give online courses about getting happy, reasonably well-behaved animals that thrive with people. Wanna learn more, and get information about when they’re available (and also get info about new blogposts and free webinars)? Sign up below!


Butler et al., 2011. The efficacy of systematic desensitization for treating the separation-related problem behaviour of domestic dogs.

9 Replies to “Systematic desensitization – essential to reducing fear”

  1. Yes I used SD on my dog after I bought a battery operated nail file instead of clipers.She may have been OK without me introducing it slowly with food but the end result is good.

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