Desensitization – Exposing an animal to a stimulus using time or experience to drive the stimulus value towards neutral. A process of changing and animal’s perception of an event, negative or positive, to a neutral perception, as evidenced by the animal’s lack of response to the event when compared to a previous baseline.
Desensitization is a critical part of training because it is the process of an animal getting used to a new stimulus through the gradual exposure to it. A stimulus can take many forms whether it is people, noises, lighting, weather conditions (ex. rain), or anything that an animal can perceive as new or frightening. Whenever presenting something new in an animal’s environment it is a wise decision to introduce it slowly over a period of time. A slow and calm introduction of new items will help maintain the animal’s trust. Trust allows for better husbandry care and the ability to work closely with the animals.
We have desensitized our resident animals to a variety of different stimuli. In the top left photo we have been working with all of our resident dolphins to be desensitized to an ultrasound. This includes the veterinarians, ultrasound equipment, and using the ultrasound. The middle left photo was taken during the preparation phase for the movie Dolphin Tale; we were working on desensitizing Winter to “filming cameras.” We used a gas can and foam pieces to make a mock camera, this way when the real cameras were brought in she would not react to them. In the bottom right photo we were taking routine husbandry photos of Cooper. To do this we had to desensitize the photographer and touching his hind legs. As you can see this behavior takes a lot of trust on Cooper’s part because he is ventral in the water and he is allowing the trainer to touch and manipulate his hind legs.