Systematic Desensitisation

Eliminating fear, phobias or aggression

Systematic Desensitisation is a type of behavioral therapy designed to help a fearful animal progressively relax in the presence something that causes fear, phobias or aggression. This technique used to support dogs that are afraid of specific objects, other dogs, or even strange people. Systematic Desensitisation techniques can teach your GSD to be calm around fear or aggression triggers. The central idea is to gradually teach your GSD to be calm around the various triggers, using treats without any form of punishment but it will take a great deal of time and patience, in some cases it also required large open spaces that are not easily accessable.

How do animals become fearful?

Conditioned Emotional Response (Classical Conditioning)

Animals may well become fearful due to classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is how we learn to associate a neutral stimulus (like a sound, or a light) with a consequence. Classical conditioning means “basic learning”. We use classical conditioning by using a Marker Word and giving a treat and by doing so we elicit a conditioned emotional response. The opposite also happens when we teach that a certain stimulus is associated with something bad or negative. When repeated often enough, the stimulus itself will make the dog feel fearful. 

Example: You take your GSD for a walk every morning but when another dog approaches you become tense and pull on the leash. After several weeks of this your GSD will soon start barking at any strange dog. He/she has discovered that other dogs make you tense prompting a jerk on the leash, in essence you have unintentionally conditioned your GSD to become fearful of other dogs. Some things or situations may be so stressful that a single exposure has the potential of making your GSD fearful for a long time. This is called sensitisation.


Is a form of behavioural modification technique that aims at changing the emotional and physiological  response of a dog towards a certain “trigger” that brings about a reaction from the dog. Triggers such as a sound, sight, physical touch, etc. This response can occur after repeated exposure or a single exposure as stated above.

Prime examples are thunderstorms and gunfire. These are loud noises that may elicit a fear reaction and if repeated has the potential of making the dog all the more anxious. Unlike classical conditioning, sensitisation is not stimulus specific.

Fearful associations and phobias are very hard to reverse, but with patience and practice it can be achieved. Systematic Desensitisation is a method when paired with Counterconditioning, cam be very successful.

Systematic Desensitisation Explained

For the majority of dogs one of the major reasons that they display on leash reactivity, is because they experience a negative emotional response toward their trigger. They feel fear, anxiety, frustration, or a blend of the three. Desensitisation and counterconditioning entail change a dog’s emotional and physiological response to the trigger through careful regulated exposure at a progressively increased intensity.

NO discomfort. NO reaction.

To commence you will need:

  • Lots of high value treats
  • A 1-2 metre leash
  • A harness, collar, or head halter
  • A quite environment with your dog’s trigger present
  • 15-20 minutes per training session.

Follow these steps:

  1. First approach your dog’s trigger, moving in a relaxed and calm way until your dog is just approaching threshold – that point where your dog notices and becomes interested in the trigger but is still able to look away and focus on other things in the environment
  2. STOP, stay quiet and wait. Allow your dog to observe and sniff but do not let them pull you any closer.
  3. As soon as your dog disengages from its trigger by looking back at you Mark, move away and reward very generously with their high value treats.

This is desensitisation and counter conditioning. It is when your dog is exposed to the trigger at a low controlled intensity, and they get something really wonderful (their ultimate favourite treat if all time) while the trigger is present. Be willing to repeat this step numerous times per session and over multipole training sessions. With time, you will be able to move closer and closer before your dog reaches their threshold.

Resist the temptation to go closer than your dog can handle

The better you are at safeguarding and ensuring your dog’s at or under threshold, the faster you’ll make progress. Be sure to practice with different triggers and in different environments. Your dog is learning three incredibly valuable lessons during these controlled training exercises:

  1. That their trigger is not really as scary or frustrating as they initially thought,
  2. that in fact, especially good things happen when your trigger is present, and
  3. if they are uncertain in what else to do, they now know that they can look to you for help and guidance.

Remember, with desensitisation and counterconditioning, the aim is to change an emotional and physiological response, and that takes time. It’s also normal for dogs to good and bad days in training, so don’t get disheartened or discouraged by a bad walk or training session.  If at any point, you feel overwhelmed or that you are stuck at a certain point in training, reach out to a certified positive reinforcement dog trainer to help guild you through the process.

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