The term desensitization gets said a lot in the animal training world, but when you ask someone about what they are doing or what a desensitization protocol should look like, they don't know.
Desensitization sure does sound nice. We know it is taking a fear, anxiety, or unknown stimulus and familiarizing the animal with it so that it no longer solicits a fear response. It can be done as a preventative or a means to work through existing fear.
When you see animal trainers, primarily horse and dog trainers, "desensitizing" the animal to a piece of equipment or handling, they usually have the animal in a situation where there is no choice; the animal is exposed to the stimuli typically at high intensity, meaning lots of exposure. The animal is forced to endure the exposure consistently or frequently with almost no breaks. This is done until the animal gives in, gives up, relaxes, calms down, stops fighting, and becomes what appears to the trainer and their audience as having accepted the stimulus successfully.
This high-intensity exposure to a stimulus is not desensitization but refers to another procedure known as flooding. You are flooding the animal with high-intensity exposure to the thing until the magical moment of shutdown or learned helplessness occurs in the animal. Learned helplessness is when the animal appears to have calmed down and accepted the stimulus, but in reality, they have found a place in their mind to lock themselves up and pretend that the thing doesn't exist. They are physically present, but mentally, they have left the situation.
No animal should not have to go through this. There can be instances where this flooding technique can be done very carefully and kindly, but that's beyond the scope of this article.
If exposure to something isn't proper desensitization, then let's discuss what is.
Desensitization is a specific protocol designed to systematically introduce a potentially or already learned fearful stimulus, such as being left alone (separation anxiety), in micro and intentional amounts so that it does not trigger any fear response, anxiety, or negative emotions.
We call this hypothetical line where an animal shows an aversive amount of stress to something, which is the animal's Threshold. Proper systematic desensitization does not step over that Threshold.
The hardest part about desensitization is the feeling you are not getting anywhere. It can be tough to see the overall growth and improvement when looking at it every day under a microscope. So keep this in mind because it feels slower than trying to get a result through other forms of training. However, it is the most effective way to get lasting results.
To implement an effective desensitization protocol, it can be helpful to record data along the way so that you can look at your progress with a much broader view. Additionally, recording your data from training sessions allows you to look at the results more analytically and keep your protocol on track if you see a regression creeping up. Regressions are normal. Finally, you have the hard facts to look back on and see what is working and what is not working or might be slowing down your progress.
So we know that a desensitization protocol will stay under the Threshold now, but another common problem I see with trainers is that they always push every session to the threshold mark.
Okay, so in theory, we want to push frequently to the Threshold. But, also, the more practice we have, the faster we reach our goal, right?
No! That's not how it works at all.
So for some reasons, I'm not going to get too lost in the weeds describing for you this idea of being pushy and always trying for the maximum amount of exposure each session turns out it's not helpful. Pushing too hard too fast to rush through a protocol can have the opposite effect. It can sensitize the animal, making them more hyper-aware or anxious about the stimulus you are attempting to desensitize.
There is a real risk of sensitization when executing a desensitization protocol incorrectly.
To avoid this, we want to ensure that your protocol has a variety of levels of intensity with each rehearsal. This means you might not expose the animal to the stimuli some days. Where on other days, you will tickle the underbelly of Threshold. Even still, you might land somewhere in the middle during another exposure session.
This process of desensitization can be a challenging concept for pet parents. As I mentioned in the beginning, this process can feel painfully slow when in reality, you are cruising right along. I recommend hiring a professional to help you design your protocol, look at your data, and keep you on track. Even as a professional who provides this service for others, I like to call a colleague if and when I need help with desensitization. The extra set of eyes and cheerleading are worth it.
Remember, with all training protocols; this is a live animal we are dealing with and learning is not linear. Just like if there is something you are afraid of or had trauma around, you are not likely to overcome the distress on some therapist's timeline. Ultimately it takes time to heal, on your time. Slow is the new fast, and well worth it to achieve a true relaxation in the face of a previously fear inducing thing.