K9 Corner, Jan. 30

Published 9:59 am Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Understanding how, why to desensitize your dog

By Helen Palmer

What is desensitizing? How and when do you do it? Desensitizing is a method used to rehabilitate a dog that is so fearful in certain situations that we consider it phobic.

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The best way to desensitize a phobic dog is to expose the animal to a very light dose of whatever produces the fear. In the case of the dog that bit a chunk out of my car’s head rest, I started her program by tying her in a familiar place. (Tying is stressful to any dog since it makes it feel helpless in the face of danger.) Then I walked around the corner and came right back, praised, rewarded and released the animal. The time the dog was left alone was five seconds. This was repeated several times a day for at least three or four days before progressing to ten seconds. It usually takes about eight weeks to desensitize a dog that has separation anxiety.

While on the subject of stress, there are other situations that cause the dog to react. One of the frequent phobias is fear of storms and loud noises. Again, these dogs can be desensitized by taking them into a relaxing area in the house like the den or living room, giving the dog a chew-toy (something pleasant to remember) and then playing a tape of a storm very quietly for a few seconds. Turn it off, praise and reward him. Gradually, over a period of weeks, increase the volume of the tape.

If a real storm comes up while you are working on desensitizing, take the dog to an area where the noise of the storm is filtered. Use a fan or other machine to drown out the noise of the storm and try to get your dog to play with you, either by playing fetch or just getting up on the couch for grooming. If you are also afraid of storms, you may not be the person to convince the dog that storms should be ignored.

Some dogs get sick when they go out for a ride in the car. Again, desensitizing starts with tiny steps. Depending on the animal, introduce him to the vehicle. Encourage him to get in by using treats. Praise. Guide him by the leash to the edge of the seat and let him jump out with the command “OK.” Don’t start the car, some dogs have to learn that getting into the car is no big deal and sometimes it takes a week to convince him of that.

The second stage is to start the motor. Turn the motor off before the dog panics and praise, reward and release. The third stage is to move the car a few yards down the driveway followed by praising and releasing. You may think this takes too long, but when you consider the time you will spend cleaning up after the dog for the next twelve to fifteen years… Well?

Anticipate what might distress your dog and try to teach it that nearly everything is “no big deal.”