What is ‘habituation’ in dog behaviour?

There are three types of learning when it comes to the subject of dog behaviour – classical conditioning, instrumental conditioning and habituation.  In this article, Holidays4Dogs will look at the term ‘habituation’ and what it means when it comes to how dogs learn.

Habituation is a common term amongst dog trainers and behaviourists, but the same principle occurs with people, as well as other animals.

Habituation is the sort of learning that teaches the individual to become acclimatized to a stimulus. In people, it can be used to treat phobias or drug abuse and in dogs, can help puppies not to be fearful or aggressive towards environmental stimuli.

The process involves gradually exposing the individual to the stimulus – for instance; a fear of spiders.  In the example of a spider phobia in humans, the person is exposed to the insect gradually – increasing the distance and proximity.  Habituation occurs when the reaction to the stimulus either greatly reduces, or disappears altogether.

dog sitting, pet sittingHabituation is used widely in dog training to socialise puppies and dogs.  Dogs that show a fear of strangers may be exposed to a stranger several feet away and is given a treat for calm behaviour.  Over a period of time, the stranger will move slowly nearer the dog until, in principle, the dog eventually becomes habituated to the presence of the stranger.

Despite the fact that dogs are incredibly adaptable creatures, it can be challenging for them to learn to live in a human world, so socialization and habituation is really important, especially during the early weeks and months of a puppy’s life.

dog sitting, pet sittingIt is crucial to expose your puppy to positive experiences in a controlled way – with the aim of setting your puppy up for success each and every time.  Habituation, or gradual exposure to stimuli such as cars, household appliances, different terrains etc, are all very important to helping a puppy grow into a confident adult able to cope with human world around him.

Genetics also play a role in how well a puppy responds to external stimuli.  Whereas some dogs are naturally bold and inquisitive, others will be predisposed to be more anxious about new experiences; but socialisation and habituation can, to a degree, counteract this.  Puppies that lack socialization in their early weeks and months are less able to cope with stress which in turn, inhibits their ability to learn and can be less inclined to be guided by their owners as a result.

Therefore, it is important to expose your new puppy (or an older dog if he is a rescue) to new experiences gradually so that, over time, he will become habituated to many of the things in the world that we see as being normal and usual, but which he may at first find worrying.  With time, consistency and patience you will soon have a four legged friend who you can take anywhere with you and who will be comfortable in most situations.