FEAR & the Use of Systematic Desensitization

Fear is a combination of physical, emotional, and physiological responses to a threatening stimulus or situation, which in the wild would protect the animal from harm. Fear may become a maladaptive phobia when the response is out of proportion to the threat. Fearfulness may be inherited from the parents, and as an inherited behavior, is extremely resistant to change. Dogs do not outgrow their fearfulness, it will be a part of them for life. However, with a great deal of time and patience, you can train your dog to accept fear inducing situations.

The dog may be afraid of one stimulus, or of a wide variety of different situations, noises, colors, objects, touches or people. The fear response is increased by how close the stimulus is, its size, speed or intensity, how unfamiliar it is, and by learning. Fearfulness may be proportionate to the intensity of the stimulus, but this is not always the case. For example, a severe thunderstorm may produce a more severe response than a distant storm. Often fear of one thing will generalize to other similar things. A dog that is afraid of thunder for example, may develop fear of firecrackers, doors closing, or dropped objects. A fear response may develop at any age, and in either sex.

Puppies that are not exposed to normal stimuli between 3-8 weeks of age may be fearful as adults. If they are left in a restricted environment until 16 weeks of age, the chances of establishing normal responses are virtually non existent. However, global fear (fear of all new people, environments, objects and noises), which is inherited, may be seen in dogs that were handled well, socialized properly, and raised in an ideal environment. Fears related to each sense (for example fear of touch and fear of sound) are probably inherited separately.

Fearful dogs may exhibit a variety of signs. Some of the signs of fear include;

· flight - dog may run & hide, or dig, chew or scratch to escape.
· aggression (growling, nipping, biting) when cornered
· dog becomes stiff with fear when cornered & cannot move (rare)
· excitement, urination, defecation, anal gland discharge
· pacing, running, hysterical response
· seeking human presence


Dogs often learn to be more fearful in response to a stimulus. This often happens with thunderstorm phobias, in which the frightened dog seeks the owner who pets and consoles it. The dog learns that a fearful response gets him the attention of his owner, which makes him respond in the same way in the future. When faced with a scared dog, it is best to be matter of fact about the stimulus which is causing the fear.

Dogs can also learn by pairing neutral and unpleasant stimuli. This happens if the dog steps on a nail (adverse stimulus) at the same time the phone rings (a neutral stimulus). Afterward the dog may always show fear when the phone rings.


1. Identify the stimulus causing the fear response. This may include a certain place, or other associated cues. A dog that is afraid of thunder for example, may not react if the lightening, rain, wind and darkness are not also present.

2. You must be able to control the fear-inducing stimulus so that it can be presented at an
appropriate intensity. Using the thunder example, a tape recording of a thunder storm allows you to present it very quietly as well as at full loudness.

3. Treat the dog through desensitization and counterconditioning. You present the fear- inducing stimulus at a low intensity or for a brief period, and the dog is given food rewards for not showing fear. The intensity is gradually increased. It is important not to induce anxiety or fear.

4. Flooding is occasionally used for mild fears, but it must continue until the dog is showing no signs of fear. This takes a long time (up to 8 continuous hours), and if the dog is removed before it has habituated to the stimulus, the fear response may be worse (the dog learns that if he is fearful the stimulus is removed). This technique is seldom used for this reason.

5. A successfully treated animal should be periodically exposed to the fear-inducing stimulus, and rewarded for not responding fearfully.


1. This procedure should be used when you want to stop your dog from responding to a certain stimulus. For example, you might want to train your dog not to show fear to loud noises, or aggression to strangers.

2. Train the dog to perform a long 20 minute down-stay. Ideally, you should have him lie on a special rug or mat that is used only for training. The dog will associate the smell and feel of the rug with the quiescence he learns in this training. Reward the dog with food as long as he stays. You will initially need to start with short intervals (10 seconds) but you will be able to increase the interval as the dog learns what is expected of him.

3. Identify the stimulus which induces the fear. If it is a noise like a thunderstorm, make a recording of it so that you can control the intensity of the stimulus. You will have to test the recording to make sure it elicits the fear response. If it doesn't, you may need to add other cues like a strobe light, darkness, and a sprinkler on the window. Once you know what works, wait 2 weeks before you start desensitizing the dog.

4. Have your dog lie down and stay. Then introduce the stimulus at a low intensity, which barely arouses the dog's attention (i.e. play the recording at a low level). Reward the dog for remaining quiet. You should give him a treat every 3-10 seconds, and at each clap of thunder.

5. Very gradually increase the stimulus intensity. Keep rewarding quiescence. Go until a small fear response is noticed, then go back to the previous level and increase the intensity of the stimulus more gradually.

6. If the dog shows the objectionable behavior at any point in the training, stop the training session and start the next one with the stimulus at a lower intensity. Build the intensity up more slowly.

7. Train daily if possible, but a minimum of twice a week. The training periods should be 40-50 minutes long. Be very careful not to induce fear or anxiety, which would make learning more difficult.

8 . The training should be repeated at different times and places, and with and without the owner present. Anytime a factor is changed, the training should be started again at the lowest intensity.

9. When training acceptance of thunderstorms, the transfer from the training situation to a real storm may cause failure. Try to be present during storms, with the rug and food rewards. Drugs may be necessary to reduce the dog's anxiety at this time. Drugs however do not cure the problem. In some cases they facilitate correction, but they also reduce the dog's ability to learn. It is very effective if you have a training session at the end of a storm.

10. Keep written records of the date, time of day, length of training session and dog's response.


Read the above instructions very carefully. All the principles for treating fear of people are the same as for treating fear of noise. The differences are outlined below:

1. Teach the dog a 10 minute sit-stay.

2. Identify which people cause fear, and which people do not. For example, your dog may be most afraid of tall men in uniforms. He may be less afraid of shorter men, even less afraid of women, and not at all afraid of children under 12. Sometimes hats will induce a fear response, and some dogs are afraid only of men with beards. 

3. Put the dog in a sit-stay beside you. Have someone the dog is not scared of (a non-fear-
inducing stimulus like a child or a woman) walk toward the dog. If the dog is calm when the person is 12 feet away, reward the dog with food treats. Then have the person raise his arms and wave them around. If the dog doesn't react he gets another treat. The person moves in to about 9 feet from the dog, raises arm, etc. The dog is rewarded for remaining calm. This continues until the person is close enough to touch the dog. If the dog gets nervous at any point, do not reward him. Instead, walk away and ignore the dog for 10 minutes before resuming, but have the person approach more gradually the next time.

4. This is first done in the environment where the dog is least likely to show a fear response. The training is gradually moved to more threatening locations. (House-> yard-> park)

5. Return to the least threatening area, and have your friend dress up in funny clothes, or imitate a strange walk. Repeat the above steps until the dog is calm when the person is next to him.

6. Then return to the least threatening location, but have someone the dog is more afraid of approach the dog. Repeat the approach sequence, rewarding the dog for quiet behavior until the person is next to the dog, then repeat in more threatening environments. Repeat the training with a variety of different people.

7. The training sessions should be happy times. Keep written records of your progress. Each session should be 30 minutes twice daily.

The above techniques have worked well in the past, but they obviously require a great deal of commitment from you if they are to be effective. Although your dog will always be fearful, with these techniques you can train him to accept situations in which his fear response is totally inappropriate.

By Doctors McKeown, Luescher and Machum of the Ontario Veterinary College.