5 Ways to Improve your Desensitisation with your Dog

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

5 Ways to Improve your Desensitisation with your Dog

January 9, 2024 Uncategorised 0

Desensitisation is a technique that can help you if your dog is sensitive to the world around them. This is especially true if they are struggling with anxiety. For example, your dog may be very sensitive to you picking up your keys and they may start to panic. Perhaps they notice a strange appear over the horizon on a walk and they start barking in alarm.

If your dog really has nothing to fear, then desensitisation can be a very important part of our work.

On the other hand, if you suspect your dog is frustrated, you can help them build a little frustration tolerance first. Trying to desensitise a frustrated dog can often go badly because they don’t have the skills yet to cope with seeing things they can’t access. We all know how annoying it is to see things we can’t get, right?

I can’t be the only one who feels a pinch of frustration when a website crashes!

If you want to learn more about canine frustration, this guide and assessment should help. You can also watch this free webinar too.

Whenever we work to desensitise our dogs, we need to work carefully because it’s very easy to simply make them worse. The opposite can happen and they end up even more sensitive than they were.

It’s useful to work alongside a qualified and accredited trainer or behaviourist. Nobody wants to make their dog feel worse, for sure. That said, even if you work with a professional, you’ll be doing a lot of practice by yourself and this guide should help.

If you pay attention to these five tips to help you, that should make your life a whole lot easier.

#1 Start small

Desensitisation works through gradual exposure to the things that your dog is anxious about. Because we don’t want to throw them in the metaphorical deep end, we’re going to start with those important baby steps.

We remember that our dog’s arousal will make it impossible for their feelings to change. If they’re in an uncertain situation and things don’t make sense, it’s unlikely their emotions will change. During desensitisation, our dogs are reappraising the world and learning new rules about how the world functions. We can’t help them reappraise the world if they’re afraid.

The same goes for excitement by the way. It’s much easier to sensitise to the world when we’re experiencing strong emotions.

Many people expect the dog to be calm. If you’ve ever tried to be calm when a wasp is in the room and you’re afraid of being stung, you’ll understand how tough this can be for a dog. After all, we’re the grown-up humans and if we can’t stop ourselves flapping about at a wasp, our dog will find it hard not to respond to the things they’re afraid of.

Instead, we have to take the onus upon ourselves to reduce the strength of whatever it is that triggers behaviour.

We can’t expect the dog to simply ‘be calm’ just because we insist upon it.

We’re grown-up adult humans who achieve miracles as a species every day… finding ways to reduce the intensity of those triggers should be a cakewalk.

That may mean separating things out and working with odour rather than visual or moving triggers, for example. After all, if our dogs are overwhelmed by the smell of another dog, they’ll struggle when an enormous one comes running over.

#2 Keep sessions short and spread them apart

It can be tempting to do a lot of these exposure sessions really close together.

For instance, if our dog is scared of cars going past them, we might decide to dedicate an afternoon to it. Maybe we sit and watch thousands of cars go past. It might be that our dog was a bit reactive at first, but they soon seemed to get used to things. They seemed to get over it. We might have spent an hour starting at a distance and then walking backwards and forwards over a motorway bridge. Or perhaps we started small and built up over the afternoon to walking alongside a busy dual carriageway.

In fact, it’s much better if we keep sessions short without too many exposures. Instead of seeing thousands of cars, seeing six or seven and then calling it a day.

The reason for this is that although rapid exposures may seem to get quick results, there’s a lot of bounce-back in the next session. It’s almost like we’d not done anything at all.

This is why, if you book a full afternoon session with a trainer, it can seem like you’ve had magical amounts of success. But, when you take your dog out the next day, they’re barking and lunging like usual.

Although we may not see those initial results as quickly if we start with only a few exposures and we take it slowly, it’s actually more robust learning. It lasts longer.

Think of it like helping a child to swim if they’re afraid of the water. Instead of helping them over that initial bump and spending all afternoon in the pool, it’s actually better to do a bunch of shorter sessions, like five minutes, spread out over a number of days.

#3 Finish on a win

Most of us push too hard. We started small. We were far away. Our dog noticed whatever was that they’re scared of, and then we moved on. Short sessions, baby steps. But many of us try to achieve too much and we get just too close. Boom, the response is back. Damn! We did just a little too much. We finish on a fail.

Always finish on a win.

All those repeated exposures can also cause our dog’s coping skills to gradually wear down over time. The more we do, the more likely it can be that they’ll run out of ability to cope. The more we push, the more likely we’ll be to hit that point.

When that happens, it’s almost instinctive for us to do one of two things.

The first thing we do is tell ourselves we pushed too hard and we should have stopped. So then we stop. We go home. We finish on a fail. Then we tell ourselves, ‘Oh well!’ and that it doesn’t matter. It does matter, unfortunately.

If we don’t decide to quit once we’ve pushed too far, we do the other thing. We accept that we don’t want to finish on a fail, so we keep trying. Sadly, this is just likely to cause even more opportunity for even more failure. Our dogs are just rehearsing very familiar behaviours.

Imagine that with our children who are scared of the pool. We stay in too long until the inevitable bigger kid splashes them in the face. Then we get out. That’s the memory that sticks. Or, we realise that we shouldn’t stay in the pool, but now our child is worried and this makes them more likely to react to whatever happens next.

Both scenarios have consequences.

So, finish on a win.

#4 Let your dog sleep or rest in between sessions

The mammalian brain is doing amazing things when we sleep or rest. It’s mad to think that researchers don’t really know exactly what’s going on when we sleep. But one thing they are pretty sure about is that this is a time when our memories and experiences stabilise. They become more firm. They become learning.

Sleep isn’t the only time that this memory consolidation occurs. It also happens when we rest. As we know, the brain doesn’t switch off when we rest or sleep.

When researchers have tracked what the brains of rodents are doing once they’ve finished a maze, the same bits of the brain are reactivated.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the brain is doing its best to encode what it thinks of as the important bits of the day’s events and to remember them.

This is another reason why it’s so important to finish on a win. That positive experience acts as a book-end to the event. When we leave with positive emotions about the situation, it’s more likely that this will be stored for future reference.

Sadly, when working with a dog who has a history of fear, we’re having to work with some strong patterns in our dog’s learning and memory. Those patterns have even more value because survival is such a vital event. If our dogs were afraid, then remembering the situations in which they were afraid, as well as the things that they did is going to be of primary importance.

To overcome those strong patterns in our dog’s memory, we’ll need to make sure we’re bringing our best skills. Everything that we do in our exposure sessions is creating new learning that competes with those powerful instincts of self-preservation. Letting them sleep is one way to do that.

#5 Maximise the good stuff

There’s so much more that we now know about learning new behaviours and overcoming fear. Using safety cues can certainly help.

For example, you can pair up a distinctive, portable mat with some games and food toys by putting the mat out before meals, before food puzzles and before games. You can use this mat to teach a strong ‘settle’ behaviour too so that the mat comes to predict good stuff for your dog.

It’s a really good idea to help your dog understand that the mat predicts good things in a whole range of situations. When you get a consistently strong reaction to the mat being pulled out and put down, then you’re ready to start broadening the places that you use it.

This can be used as a predictable safety cue that helps your dog understand what’s happening and feel safe.

This is not the only way you can help your dog have positive experiences at the same time as an exposure programme like desensitisation. You can also finish with a big reward. That can help ‘book-end’ the experience on a positive note. It can also contribute to your dog’s confidence.

Helping your dog find more productive and fruitful activities can also help. Scanning the environment for trouble and anticipating threat is unhelpful because the next thing that comes along is likely to cause your dog to react. Building up their ability to focus on other parts of your walk can also help.

This could include games, activities or brief training exercises.

Pairing up desensitisation exposures with positive experiences may help our dogs build new learning that can compete effectively with their previous experiences.

It is vital that you do as much as you can to avoid further sensitisation. We need to keep our dogs safe.

Other helpful resources

There are plenty of other Lighten Up resources that can help. This whole series on the Resilience Roadmap is available on the website.

You can also find this paid short course on the Roadmap if you’re looking for support.

Of course, like learning to be a great swimmer can help us cope with fear of deep water, learning skills can also be helpful for our dogs. You can find the 42 Lighten Up Skills for Resilience on this short course.

This article is part of a series on desensitisation.