Getting Used To Things (Or Not): Habituation Vs. Sensitization

Getting Used To Things (Or Not): Habituation Vs. Sensitization

Not too long ago, one of my training clients told me about an unexpected problem she was having with her dog.

She had recently moved from a rural area to a more suburban neighborhood, and had begun taking her dog for daily walks on-leash.  They both enjoyed their walks, apart from an issue they were having with a particular house along their route.

There was a dog who lived in this house, and he barked at them through the window each day as they passed.  The first time this happened, her dog was a bit startled and barked back briefly – but he recovered quickly, and they went on with their walk.  The second day was much the same.

At the time, she didn’t pay much attention to it – a minor annoyance, that was all.  She fully expected that her pup would get used to the neighbor dog and his barking, since they passed the house every day.

But that wasn’t what happened.

Instead of diminishing over time, her own dog’s reactions became increasingly more intense.  He became hypervigilant and “on edge” as they approached this part of their route, and would bark and lunge, hackles raised, at the slightest sound from the dog in the window.  His owner was at a loss to understand why he was reacting so strongly, rather than becoming accustomed to the barking and tuning it out.

******

As it happens, this phenomenon occurs more frequently than you might think.

Let’s take a closer look at what happens when a dog (or any animal) is repeatedly exposed to something new and startling.  This might be a sound, like your alarm clock, or the vacuum cleaner, or even the “ding!” of a text message on your phone.  Or, it could be something visual, like the garbage truck that rumbles by once a week, or a large man with a beard who says hello every day on your walk.

What do these things have in common?

They’re all likely to get your dog’s attention, at first – especially if he’s never encountered them before!  But none of them are actually dangerous.  They don’t hurt your dog, or cause anything bad to happen.  So it stands to reason that with repeated exposures, he should figure out that they’re nothing to worry about and learn to ignore them.

Right?

Sometimes, yes – this is exactly what happens.

My dog Gatsby has always been deeply suspicious of new things in his environment.  When I first got a new hair dryer several months ago, he came charging into the bathroom to bark at it as soon as I turned it on.  Within a few days, however, he was content to give it a dirty look and then go lay down on the couch.  Now, he pays no attention at all when I dry my hair after a shower.

The scientific term for this is habituation.  Simply put, habituation is the process of getting used to something.

All animals have evolved to notice things that are new or different, because this makes survival sense for them in the wild – a loud noise, or a strange person or creature, might be something dangerous that needs to be avoided.  But ideally, once it’s been determined through repeated exposures that the new thing is not a threat, this initial startle response should disappear.

And often, it does.

So why, then, was my client’s dog becoming progressively more upset and reactive about a harmless neighbor dog barking in the window?

In certain cases, instead of an animal habituating to a startling noise or event, something different happens: they actually become sensitized to the trigger.  This means that they become *more* frightened and have a *more* intense reaction with repeated exposures, rather than being calmer and less bothered over time.

What’s interesting (and frustrating!) about this phenomenon is that it’s not always easy to predict when it might happen.  Two dogs, exposed to the same novel trigger, may have completely different reactions – one might habituate after a few exposures, while the other may become sensitized and progressively more upset.

It’s likely that this has to do with subtle differences in the way the brain is wired in different individuals, due to things like genetic influences, early socialization (or lack thereof), and past learning experiences.  Unfortunately, these aren’t things that we can observe from the outside, so we can’t always make accurate predictions about whether a given animal will habituate or become sensitized to a particular trigger.

As a general rule, though, what we *can* say is that noises or events that are especially intense (things that are scary for the dog, even a little bit, rather than simply surprising or novel) are more likely to cause sensitization with repeated exposures.

Thunderstorms and fireworks are a very common example of this.  Most dogs are initially somewhat startled or curious about these sounds, when they first encounter them as puppies or young adults.  From there, some do habituate and end up snoozing contentedly through storm seasons and July 4th celebrations without any problems – they’ve learned that the noises have no particular meaning for them and don’t represent an actual threat.

But others (quite a few others, unfortunately!) become sensitized instead, and go on to develop crippling noise phobias that make them tremble, pant, hide, or even try to escape the house in panic whenever a storm blows through, or a neighbor sets off a few firecrackers.

(Incidentally, it’s also common to see sensitization occur with sound-based correction techniques such as ultrasonic bark deterrents, compressed air cans like the Pet Corrector, or shaking a can of pennies – which is a major reason I don’t recommend these training methods, even though they may seem “kinder” or more humane than other types of corrections.)

So what should we do with this information, when it comes to making choices for our dogs?

Clearly, we can’t avoid everything in the world that might be scary or startling for our pups – as much as we might like to!  Encountering new things and hearing strange noises are a normal part of life.  And in many cases, even if your dog looks askance at something at first, the process of habituation will kick in without any special effort on your part.

But what you *can* do, is be aware that sensitization can happen.

If you’re worried that this might be happening with your pup, you can be proactive and take steps to address the problem before it becomes more severe.  Usually, this would involve pairing the trigger with something your dog enjoys, like treats or play, along with a training plan to expose him to the scary thing in a less intense way (at a distance, for example, or by using a recording of a noise that can be turned down to a very low volume).

Most of the time, fear issues like this can be successfully treated.  But getting started sooner rather than later will give you the best chance of a good outcome.

So, pay attention to your dog’s reaction when something startles him – and understand that the more scary it seems for him at the time, the more likely it is that you’ll need to step in and help him learn there’s nothing to fear.

18 thoughts on “Getting Used To Things (Or Not): Habituation Vs. Sensitization

  1. Do you have any sugestions what to do when dog becomes more and more sensitive to noices?
    I’m trying to lower down the stress levels in everyday life but there are some particular sounds that simply frighten dogs (especially kitchen noices in our case but let’s speak generaly) and it’s difficult to work through it.

    From my limited observations I think there might be a link between reactivity and noice sensitivity (I assume it’s stress related) but still – how can we help dogs to use a path of habituation instead of sensitization? You’ve mentioned pairing with pleasant things or carefuly exposing but sometimes when the cases are severe it seems to be pointless 🙁

    Thanks for the article 🙂

    1. That’s a great question! You’re absolutely right that when the dog is afraid of normal, everyday noises that can’t be easily avoided outside of training sessions, it makes things much more challenging.

      Medication can often be really helpful in cases like this, so I would consider getting in touch with a veterinary behaviorist (or a veterinarian who’s well-versed in dealing with behavior issues) to talk about whether this might be an option for your pup.

      Aside from that, the same basic approach still holds. We want to expose the dog gradually to the sounds that he’s nervous about, starting at a really low intensity and pairing them with great things. Ideally, we would also want to avoid any exposure to the “real life” version of these sounds outside of training sessions. This can be hard to do when this dog is so sensitive to normal household noises, which is why meds can be so helpful in the beginning.

      You can still try pairing the noises with great treats, games, petting, etc. when they do happen – just be aware that with the sounds at full intensity, it may not work.

  2. Really invaluable information. Being alerted to this possibility before it happens gives us all the chance to prevent such problems for our dogs in the first place.

    1. Yes! I do think there’s value in knowing that this is a thing that can happen. That way, if you see it starting, you can intervene early rather than waiting until you have a bigger problem on your hands.

  3. My GSD has a thing with the UPS deliverys. We live on 7 fenced acres and are about 300 ft. from the front gate which on the outside is the UPS drop box. If he hears the UPS truck he takes off like a rocket for the front gate. Even if I get to the gate in time he will not stop his attack on the fence. I ignored it thinking it might be me being anxious and he picked up on that. But no it has just gotten worse. I realize as a puppy I did not get him out and around people enough. But if you come on the property and he has a chance to check you out, 15 minutes later he will bring you a toy to play with. Mike

    1. Same here Mike. We have 3 fenced acres on a dead end road and 6 of our dogs storm the gate for UPS and the mail lady daily. I wish I had known how to address it earlier in their lives,through managing them and creating positive experiences, but seems insurmountable at this time with so many… although I do not think it is impossible, even at their age 🙂 We leave all of our local drivers a Christmas Card (with a picture of the dogs all being nice) and a gift card each year to make up for it! Someday, when I have more time… I am going to take on this project though.

      1. Amy, your right. It’s probably managable so try to try it 😉

        The idea about christmass card is absolutely fantastic! I’d laugh if i were a UPS driver (but first jump quickly into the car) 😉

    2. UPS drivers and mail carriers are definitely challenging for many dogs! This is a tough problem to manage with the dog off-leash, so we usually have to decide if it’s worth leashing or confining the dog while we work through the issue, or if we’d rather just manage things and live with it.

      It’s great that he’s friendly with people once he gets a chance to meet them and say hello. <3

  4. Love this article! So many opportunities and so many different reactions at our house. I have to wonder if this may be how Marley’s dog reactivity began? He was living in a kennel at a (different) vet office during his “childhood”, where he had been abandoned by his “people” when he developed parvo. Being as sensitive as he is, I wonder if the noise overload and being fearful and alone created a recipe for that reactivity.

    1. It’s certainly possible that this might have played a role. We know that having scary or stressful experiences as a puppy can definitely have significant effects on brain development, which in turn influences how the pup will react to things as an adult. It sounds like poor Marley had a tough start in life.

      Luckily for him, he hit the dog lottery when he came to live with you! Now he’s a multi-talented Barn Hunt superstar, with his own chickens and horses to manage and lots of room to run and play. 🙂

  5. Thank you for this. Great compare and contrast of habituation and sensitisation. I also remember from some behavioural science study that sensitisation is not limited to the original stimulus: once sensitised, other similar not necessarily identical to the original stimulii can elicit similar responses. Which can be tough for noise sensitive dogs. Does this sound accurate?

    1. Yes, you’re absolutely right. One of the really unfortunate things about sensitization is that not only will the dog react more strongly over time to the original trigger, the fearful response often generalizes to other sounds (or other stimuli) that are similar.

      So for example: a dog might start out by developing a fear of thunderstorms, and then generalize this to include fireworks, gunshots, and other loud noises. (And in practice, this is something that frequently happens!)

      I’ve also seen this occur in some noise phobic patients who start out being afraid of something like the smoke alarm going off, and then generalize this to include beeping noises from the microwave, cell phone alerts, etc.

  6. How can we interrupt the sensitisation before it gets worse? I can see it happening as we walk a particular route past a couple of territorial dogs at their fence – and don’t know how to manage the situation.

  7. Great article! I used an App to slowly desensitize and expose my dog to noises that he was scared of, such as the sound of thunderstorms or children playing outside. When I was at work, I left the noises playing. We’ve been doing it for 6 months now, and I’ve seen great progress. He has definitely become desensitized to lots of sounds and loud noises.

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed.