Habituation and Desensitisation. The Difference?

This blog takes me back to my original reason for my Pawses, to mull over things that give me pause for thought.

A short while ago I described in a professional Facebook group about how I had stopped my dog Pickle barking when the doorbell rang and called it ‘desensitisation’.

Someone very rightly corrected me. What I had done wasn’t desensitisation, it was ‘habituation’.

Understanding is more than just learning definitions for acronyms like DS and CC (oh how I hate acronyms).

Habituation, DS and CC. Habituation, Desensitisation and Counter-conditioning.


Some dogs, just like people, are more talkative than others! My Working Cocker Spaniel, Pickle, is one of those. Each time the doorbell rang he morphed instantaneously from a sleepy black floppy rag-dog to a wired-up noise machine. ACTION!

It may not only have been about the sudden sound itself but also about what the sound predicted. Much of the time it predicted nothing much. I would go to the front door and deal with it. Very occasionally it meant that someone was coming in. Exciting!

Because it was just a sudden sound followed by my rushing out of the room and perhaps something exciting happening afterwards rather than a predictor for anything scary, I chose habituation (without consciously using the word to myself).

I had bought two identical radio doorbells £9.99 each. I put the two sound boxes together in the sitting room. I put one bell push outside the front door and kept the other in my pocket.

Now I simply kept ringing the bell. I asked anyone walking into the hallway to open the front door and ring the bell. I would ring it when I was in the same room as Pickle and I would ring it from upstairs. I asked anyone entering the house with a key to ring the doorbell too.

After about three weeks Pickle was immune to the doorbell ringing. Just the same as our not noticing the trains thundering by every few minutes if we live beside a railway line.

Pickle when the doorbell rang

4Pawsu.com defines habituation thus: Whenever a dog owner wants a dog to “get used to” something through simple exposure without any training or conditioning, they are really hoping for habituation.

There is a fine line between habituation and flooding. Flooding means exposing a dog to whatever he or she is afraid of with no means of escape until the dog no longer responds to it. The result can be learned helplessness. Cesar Millan relies heavily upon flooding.

To proceed with my little lesson to self, I am using an imaginary situation taking the matter of Pickle and the doorbell a bit further so that I have a simple, practical example. I find theory tough having all my life veered towards the practical rather than the academic.

Had the doorbell indeed predicted someone he could be scared of entering his house, I would have done it differently. I will now pretend that he’s scared of callers.

To desensitise him I would need to work on Pickle’s emotions. What could he have been feeling that makes him go into a frenzy of barking? Fear?

Eileen Anderson in her brilliant blog Successful Desensitization and Counterconditioning as always puts things so well. To quote her: ‘This is the technique where you start with the thing the animal is scared of (the stimulus) at a distance or intensity where the thing is not scary.  When the animal is OK with that, you gradually bring it closer or intensify it.’

Instead of immunising him through habituation which is merely repeating the same thing at the same level, I would have changed how he felt about the doorbell ringing by using desensitisation.

To desensitise Pickle to the bell alone (not to a possible caller) I would need to break the problem down – be systematic about it, one thing at a time. I would start with a muffled sound at a distance, maybe a different ringtone. I would need to remove the bell being a predictor of a scary person entering. It breaks down into many tiny steps.

Desensitising eventually removes the fearful emotion associated with hearing the doorbell but doesn’t replace it with anything particularly positive. That is the job of counter-conditioning. Desensitising just gets the dog feeling neutral about it.

To quote Eileen Anderson again, ‘OK, counterconditioning is the frosting on the cake. Counterconditioning is the technique that can actually replace fear or another undesirable response with a positive emotional response. This is done by associating the scary stimulus with something wonderful, while the animal is under threshold, consistently over time.’

If I add counter-conditioning Pickle should ultimately feel positively pleased when he hears the doorbell.

I can, through counter-conditioning, get Pickle to LOVE the doorbell.

So I build in to my systematic desensitisation timetable the things that Pickle loves (Pickle particularly loves cheese which he rarely gets, and Pickle loves his ball).

If I now save cheese for the doorbell work he will eventually love the doorbell ringing rather than just neutrally, as in habituation, ignoring it. He will soon be looking to me for the cheese when he hears it instead of thinking it may be the predictor of something scary.

So long as I don’t push him over threshold by moving ahead too fast which would set things back, he will start to feel happy when he hears the doorbell.

In time and by using the same process I could work on him feeling cool about people coming into the house too. Then the doorbell will not only be a predictor of cheese, but of a welcome person too who may now be associated with Pickle being thrown his ball.

All this is hypothetical as habituation was sufficient for Pickle and I haven’t done any of the rest with him. However, it puts it straight in my mind. DS and CC can simply be applied to anything a dog has negative feelings about.

This is how Pippa Mattinson describes counter-conditioning:  Counter-conditioning replaces the fear response entirely……Successful counter-conditioning will enable the dog to be happy and relaxed in the presence of the previously fearful stimulus.

My doorbell habituation didn’t stop Pickle barking at a neighbour’s front door slamming or at a car door shutting across the road, however. It was specific to the doorbell.

After a few weeks he began to bark at the doorbell again. He reverted. He was becoming unhabituated so I need to do a couple of days of refresher doorbell sessions from time to time. (We might start to notice those trains thundering past if the line had been closed for a month for track repairs).

For my main website and many stories of dogs I have been to, please go to www.dogidog.co.uk


About Theo Stewart

I am a dog Behaviourist C.C.B (Certified Canine Behaviourist) INTODogs). I have helped over 3000 dog owners over eighteen years. In addition to online consultations all over the world, I cover Beds, Herts, Cambs and Bucks for home visits. A 'Victoria Stilwell' Positively Dog Trainer (VSPDT) and a full member of the IMDT. Graduate ISCP, International School for Canine Practitioners. My main site: www.dogidog.co.uk
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6 Responses to Habituation and Desensitisation. The Difference?

  1. Joy Matthews says:

    Great article – clear, succinct and easy to read. THANK YOU Theo 🙂


  2. Great blog Theo. Now clear in my own mind.


  3. Pingback: What exactly do we mean by the ‘science’ of dog training? – RichardTheDogTrainer.com

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