Friday, March 4, 2011

Coping VS Desensitization

Just like the words dominance, alpha and submission vary in definition amongst pet owners (and trainers it seems).... so do the terms coping and desensitization. These terms are looked as one of the same and many times are used interchangeable, but yet they have such different definitions from one another.

Today, we were in week 2 of our BS in Dogology class, and we met on the UCF campus. We were working Reba, a 2 year old female GSD, when a student on a skate board rode by. She was uncomfortable with this, she avoided him by moving around the handler, away from the heel position. So, I asked the student if he would mind being our helper for a brief moment... I wanted him to keep a reasonable distance between her and he, and just ride the skate board by her.

He said, "sure, are you trying to desensitize her to the skate board?" and the handler said yes. It dawned on me at that moment, I needed to write a post on this, to help dog parents understand what to DESENSITIZE actual means.

In the above training scenario, we were not really desensitizing the dog to the skate board or skate boarder. We were asking her to cope better for that situation. I can see where this gets confusing, but follow me a second.

Now let us say this dog's emotional response to skate boarders is one of fear. Then to change that emotional response so that the dog becomes less and less afraid of the skate board, we would systematically desensitize her slowly, gradually and over time. During this time of desensitizing the dog to skate boards, we may start off by placing her food bowls on a skate board for example. We would gradually and systematically work up to working the dog to become accepting of the skate board in motion, and we may start in an environment less distracting and more comfortable for the dog... possibly even indoors in the dogs home. Over time, we would move out side into "the real world" and transition that emotional response we got in the house, to encounters outside. This process of changing the dog's emotional response to the skate board so that the dog lessens its fears to that object, is called desensitization.

To ask the dog to cope, does not necessarily change its emotional state of mind, and nor are its effects long lasting. So, in the case above, we asked Reba to maintain a certain position which was in the heel position, not necessarily improving her fears to that skate board. Only if she stayed in that heel position without a fight or flight response, then we would move on. This in our classes, would mean asking her to cope i.e. put up with it without trying to escape, avoid or throw a fit.

So the next time you are working on a specific issue with your dog, ask yourself "what is the objective of this exercise?" If it is to help you dog cope better by changing the way he/she feels about something, you will need to create an action plan that is incremental and will take some time.

Throwing your dog into it and just making it "cope" does not build trust or change the dogs feelings towards what it is already afraid off. We only ask the dog to cope in mild levels of stress...

I hope this helps you understand the difference between coping (not a process) and the process of desensitization a bit better.

Dog Responsibly

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