Dr. Jenifer Zeligs is a passionate person who I didn’t have the privilege to meet in person yet. With the classes she gives on line she makes me rethink my training strategies what helps me thinking outside the box a little further. Its a great add on for further experience. I would recommend her courses to all of you. They are for beginners but also for more experienced trainers and thats the beautiful part of her way of teaching people.
See her website and order her book at
What is the “fear factor?”
By Dr. Jenifer Zeligs
California State University Monterey Bay
One of the most common difficulties that any of us face in life is overcoming fear. In animal training there are many situations that potentially involve this hurdle: medical procedures, transport and new environments, to name a few. Increasingly in both human and animal learning environments, the profound advantages of careful systematic desensitization is used to reduce fears and expand comfort. Systematic desensitization involves breaking a stimulus (procedure or situation) into small component elements and exposing the animal in lesser approximations before progressing to the end product. In order to use this technique properly, one must be able to judge “what is the fear factor?”
In the beginning periods of exposure to something new, there is a delicate stage where an animal can become increasingly afraid (sensitized) instead of desensitized. What ends up happening is primarily based on what psychologists call the initial stimulus strength.
Stimulus strength is another way to describe the potential value of a stimulus to a given animal, or in scientific terms, its “salience.” When this value is highly significant and aversive it often causes sensitization. Therefore trainers need a keen sense of what types of properties might increase the aversive stimulus strength (and as a result, the fear an animal feels).
There are many factors that can typically suggest an increase in fear. For example, something that is very loud or that emits intense sound or objects that are very large are often highly sensitizing. Likewise, the closer an object is to the animal, the more potential it has to do harm, and thus the greater its stimulus strength. While these basic qualities are easy to understand why they would be frightening, there are several others that are more obscure but can still suggest a high value stimulus.
If an animal interprets a stimulus’s movement as a potential threat directed towards them, the stimulus strength will be greater. Directed movements at the animal can provoke the fear of the object being “out to get the animal.” Also, a stimulus’s strength can also be increased if it cannot be seen by the animal, if it is coming from behind them, from overhead or if the animal is in a vulnerable position when they are exposed.
Time of exposure and how long an animal is continuously exposed to an object or situation will further increase the strength and begin to take its toll. So, try to keep exposures short and positive.
Animals should always have the chance to touch an object and/or smell it before it touches them! Just think how you would feel if something was being forced on you without you being able to learn about it first?
Overall try to use distance and keep a stimulus visible, low-key, quiet, and without much movement to reduce the animal’s initial fears while they become accustomed to any scary experience. Also allow them to touch and explore before asking them to endure.
Desensitization is always a function of time and experience. Like all issues of motivation, it is dependent on the individual’s unique perception of the stimulus. It is vitally important to recognize the potential impacts of exposure to new stimuli or situations, because a little care in the beginning can prevent the animal from becoming afraid and reactive. If sensitized, it can take a long time to recover the animal’s perception of the situation or the stimulus. To reduce this risk, lowering the stimulus strength using systematic desensitization is the safest choice. A proactive approach, anticipating problems with changes in context, and preparing an animal to accept a variety of stimuli and environments, will result in a well-balanced and confident creature. For more on techniques that reduce fear and increase confidence please see Animal Training 101 Chapter 7.