Habituation vs Desensitization Differences in Dog Training

These two behavioral training methods focus on reducing a dog’s discomfort using stimulus between a particular individual, situation, or environmental factor. While habituation and desensitization methods both use repetition and incentive processes, their system works in different ways and scenarios.

Behavior 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 in 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 varying degrees 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 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 regular part of her life.

The process allows the dog to learn what stimuli are non-threatening 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.

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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.

Don’t Scold Puppy, Use Positive Reinforcement

Puppies are sensitive to your moods and emotions as you will see if you start scolding puppy. A pooped pup will drop head, and little tail goes right between the legs. They know something isn’t quite right and have no idea what to do about the situation.

If your puppy is in trouble for going on the floor because you weren’t there watching, you now have a mess to clean up and a somewhat confused puppy. “It’s your job to watch me, and you didn’t so I had to go.”

Little puppy may have been sniffing around with a full bladder. Had you been watching you would have noticed the signs but you didn’t, and now you’re scolding the puppy for something you messed up on. Puppies bladder isn’t huge just yet.

What Does Puppy Learn From Scolding?

My foster dad used to crap all over me for stuff without telling me what the problem was and I used to get so frustrated that I would usually get into more trouble trying to figure what the heck the problem was. I quickly learned that he had a short fuse and didn’t discuss before taking action. I was eight and still didn’t understand.

Puppy will learn a whole lot quicker if you give positive reinforcement over punishing. No rolled up newspaper or grabbing a puppy and pushing their little face in their mess. All that this accomplishes is that puppy learns fear early.

Using some positive reinforcement, your puppy will make the connection and try to duplicate it over and over, to show their unconditional love.

Practice Makes Perfect

  • Each time you build up your puppy with praise for a job well done, whatever the job, it becomes an automatic thing and puppy is finally a real part of the family. Just remember that accidents are going to happen for one reason or another.
  • See I told you accidents are going to happen, even though you’ve done a great job of house training your puppy. Changing your dogs routine can put them off schedule, and when you get home from work 4 hours late, well it happens.
  • Other things can cause your pup to have accidents including too many visitors which get your dog excited, even trying new dog food can affect. Just don’t punish your dog for something they have little control over.
  • Our second dog had been at a kennel for some time and had also been abuses before our son rescued her. Even though she was more than a year old when we got her, we still treated her like a puppy and trained her in quick time.
  • Put the time, thought and love into your puppy training and it will likely go as smooth as it did for us and others we know.