What Is the Difference Between Habituation & Desensitization in Dogs?


Habituation and desensitization are two methods of behavioral training used to reduce a dog's discomfort with the stimulus of a particular individual, situation or environmental factor. The processes might seem similar on the surface, as they both expose the dog to the stimulus to reduce her discomfort. However, while both require the dog to be exposed to the stimulus a number of times, habituation and desensitization work in different ways and are used in different situations.

Behaviorism in Training

Much of dog training is based on behaviorism, which relies on repetition, with desired behaviors being reinforced with rewards and undesired behaviors eliminated by being punished. These processes are known as conditioning.

Rewards are used to encourage and to reinforce a behavior. Many, if not most, dogs are trained using food rewards, but a toy, petting or even praise can be used as a reward.

  • Different rewards should be used for various training situations. For example, bouncing a ball is probably not the best reward if you want your dog to sit still.
  • Not all
    dogs are motivated by the same rewards. Some dogs are more play oriented and are motivated by tug toys or tennis balls. Other dogs may be more food oriented.
  • Motivation caused by a
    particular reward may vary in the same dog in different situations. Your dog might not be interested in the string cheese you use to train him in your backyard, when she is highly stressed by her frightening stimulus. Experiment with different levels of treats to keep her attention with different levels of distraction.

Punishment can never be used to train a behavior. It is only used as discouragement, to reduce or erase a behavior over time. Punishment can be positive or negative in nature.

  • Positive punishment occurs when something negative is applied to the dog, such as a raised voice.
  • Negative punishment occurs when something desirable is removed from the dog. For example, putting your dog's ball away if she growls in play is a negative punishment.

Habituation Training

Habituation accustoms a dog to a stimulus that makes her fearful, so that she gradually learns to ignore it. It is used when there is a known stimulus, which is introduced in a calm and controlled manner, allowing the dog to overcome her concerns without using force. As she becomes accustomed to the stimulus that caused her fear, she learns to file the presence of the stimulus away without responding to it. It becomes a normal part of her life.

The process allows the dog to learn what stimuli are nonthreatening and, therefore, can be ignored. For example, if a dog is afraid of men wearing ball caps, she might be led into a room with a man wearing a cap, given a treat and then led out. Over time, she might be led closer to the man wearing the cap, eventually being rewarded by the man, until she learns that the cap means nothing -- it is the man who is important, as he gives the reward, while the cap is just extraneous information. In the wild, animals become habituated to certain items as a survival mechanism.


  • Never punish a fearful dog. Punishment will only increase her stress, as well as her fear.

Desensitization Training

Desensitization is often used in training a dog to adjust to situations that make her less fearful, such as when she hears loud noises. The stimulus is gradually introduced. Unlike the man in the ball cap, who is always present in his full form, desensitization begins with a lesser form of the fear-causing stimulus. If a dog is frightened of thunderstorms, for example, she might be presented with a recording of a thunderstorm, played at low volume. Using treats, massage therapy or other methods of relaxation training, the dog is taught how to respond appropriately to the stimulus. Once she is showing no response to the storm at low volume, gradually increase it over time. Eventually, the fearful dog who hid in the bathtub during a storm can become accustomed to the sound of even a loud storm.


  • Never comfort your dog or give her treats when she is behaving in a fearful manner, such as cowering or trembling during a thunderstorm. Comforting or giving a treat reinforces her fearful behavior, telling her that you want her to whine, tremble or hide (or worse) in response to the stimulus.

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