Desensitization is a process that diminishes emotional responsiveness to a negative, aversive, or positive stimulus after repeated exposure to it.

Many people use this process with our animals, both intentionally and by accident. It often occurs naturally by virtue of daily life; for example, perhaps you live near train tracks, and your cat used to hide when the trains went by. After a few months, he doesn’t even wake up anymore.

We also use desensitization intentionally for working through behavior struggles. At Synergy, we are committed to fear-free and force-free training, which means we always combine desensitization with counterconditioning. Essentially, we pair the scary thing with something the animal enjoys, so that over time, we can create a positive emotional response to the scary thing. Repeated exposure alone is unlikely to create a calm, happy animal, especially when confronted by something the animal finds very scary, such as veterinary and grooming procedures.

In order for a desensitization and counterconditioning plan to be successful, it must be done at the animal’s pace, not ours. This means splitting the final goal into dozens- if not hundreds- of steps. Our goal is to create a positive emotional response to every tiny step, like adding layer after layer of thin crepes, in order to create the final delicious product! If we move too quickly or lump the steps together, we risk undoing all our previous work, disrupting the trust our animals have in us, and potentially even making the experience more unpleasant for the animal.

What sort of experiences does your pet find scary or unpleasant? Have you ever tried a desensitization process to help your pet be more comfortable? How successful was it?


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