Training Technique - Desensitization

Does your pet experience stress during certain events, or when interacting with other pets or people?

Whether your cat fears males or your dog is having trouble getting used to another new pet in the house, a technique called systematic desensitization training might be able to help.

What It Is

"Systematic desensitization involves exposing the pet to a less intense version of the event that makes him feel threatened," Lindsay Wood, behaviorist at The Humane Society of Boulder Valley, explains. "The key element of systematic desensitization is that the initial intensity of the event must be so low that the pet feels none of the original tension or threat."

If your cat fears males, you can help the adjustment with exposure to men in scenarios that make your cat feel safe while making them appear as nonthreatening as possible. For example, at first you can ask a male friend to stand quietly several feet away from your cat. When your cat is calm and relaxed, ask your friend to come closer by just a few feet so your cat remains calm. 

Repeat the exercise many times until the man can be right next to your cat without her showing any signs of stress. This is a very gradual process and patience is key.  This type of training is often used in conjunction with counter-conditioning, where rewards are used to change a pet’s association with something from one of stress to one of pleasure.  Learn more about counter conditioning.

Psychological History

Systematic desensitization is a type of behavioral therapy invented by South African behaviorist Joseph Wolpe in the twentieth century. Also called "graduated exposure therapy," it's often used in human psychology to treat phobias.

Getting Started

If you're considering using systematic desensitization to help your pet deal with fear and anxiety, keep in mind that this process isn't immediate. Often, it can take several months to see a major difference, although your pet will make incremental breakthroughs along the way. It's always recommended that you have a behaviorist or animal trainer assist the process, because, if not done properly, systematic desensitization may be traumatic for the pet.  

Remember not to use punishment during the training process. When dealing with stress this only makes a pet more fearful. It's better to keep the training experience positive, and something you'll both look forward to.