Avoid the pitfalls of desensitisating your dog

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Avoid the pitfalls of desensitisating your dog

February 6, 2024 Uncategorised 0

Helping our dogs get used to the world is a really important part of living with dogs. Our dogs inhabit a world that is more complex than ever. In urban areas, they are surrounded by noisy machines and dense numbers of dogs and people. It’s not much different in the countryside.

Pre-emptive desensitisation

Desensitisation can be pre-emptive. When we know that there in things in life that dogs will struggle with, desensitisation can help with that. It doesn’t matter if it’s something relatively benign like a collar, leash or harness. Desensitisation can help. In these cases, all we do is introduce our dogs gradually to anything that could potentially distress them if we moved too quickly.

All kinds of things in our dogs’ lives can be improved by pre-emptive desensitisation. Car trips are a good example. Although most dogs who travel regularly in cars or vans enjoy the experience, it can be very frightening for others. The same is true of things like travel crates and restraint in the car.

In the home, that can include things like desensitisation to baby gates, crates and being left alone. Many people have unfortunately paid the price of moving too quickly with a young puppy, only to cause problems that take a long time to fix. It’s easily done. Young puppies depend on social support more than an adult animal might.

Handling and husbandry activities are another area where desensitisation can be used pre-emptively to prevent problems occurring. For example, we may help our dog get used to experiences like grooming by starting gently and keeping sessions short.

Therapeutic desensitisation

Sometimes our dogs become sensitive of experiences that really aren’t all that awful. We all know the vet doesn’t intend to kill our dog, right?

Yet our dog reacts as if this is the end of the earth, even if only very mild restraint or the pinch of an injection are the worst thing that happens.

We may only go on short car journeys for example, but our dogs act like it’s an out-of-control rollercoaster ride.

This is not to belittle their experience. Our dogs have no understanding of what is happening and feel out of control. To them, it is a life-or-death situation. Just because their panic is something we don’t understand when the situation isn’t really that bad doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to reduce our dog’s sensitivity to that situation.

Of course, it goes without saying that we cannot desensitise our dogs to truly awful situations. Teaching them to tolerate the intolerable is not possible. We can only desensitise them in situations where it is their appraisal of the situation that is out of kilter with reality.

It also depends on our dog and the things that are important to them. If our dog is anxious and depends on us for social support, trying to desensitise them to a full day’s absence may never be possible.


To desensitise our dog, all we have to do is work with the following in mind.

Our dog must not be experiencing heightened arousal. Arousal simply means their alertness. If our dog is hyperalert, it is not possible to desensitise them. The risk is that they will sensitise even more intensely. The same is absolutely true of positive emotions as it is of negative ones. We may hope that our dog will get used to the ducks in the park, for example, only for their arousal levels to ensure that our dog becomes even more sensitive and frustrated by the movement.

Our dog must also be in a relatively neutral emotional state. What this means is that they are not anxious or excited. Trying to desensitise an excited or fearful dog runs the same risk as trying to do it when they are highly aroused.

Besides keeping a neutral or mild emotional state and low arousal, it’s also important that we understand novel situations are hard for our dogs. The unfamiliar creates uncertainty. Uncertainty causes arousal and apprehension.

Those are the last things our dogs need.

Besides these, keeping sessions relatively short will also help. Our dogs will also need to rest in between sessions. It’s a good idea if they can get some sleep too and have a day off in between sessions.

This allows their new learning to stabilise and grow strong.


Whenever our dog is on a lead or unable to move away of their own volition, things become more complicated. Most of this is because it runs the risk of flooding. Flooding can be purposeful or accidental, which is why we need to make sure we know what it is and ensure we’re not doing it.

So what is flooding?

One definition is that flooding is ‘the deliberate exposure to inescapable negatively conditioned stimuli at a strength that elicits the full emotional response’.

That’s a complex definition.

Deliberate exposure

This raises the point that flooding is usually a therapeutic technique. That’s no doubt why the authors added that word ‘deliberate’ in there. It’s a technique sometimes used with humans to help them overcome phobias or panic. Because we can understand the potential benefits, we can take on board the pros and cons. We can read research papers about its effectiveness. We can make an informed choice.

Our dogs cannot do that, and so it is not an appropriate therapeutic technique to use with them because they do not understand and it is not their choice.

For example, if you have claustrophobia, you may decide that you could best get over it by just facing your fears. You’d approach a professional who practises flooding. You’d consent to being shut into a small space until your panic subsided. Once you were used to it, they’d let you out.

And you’d repeat that until you were no longer claustrophobic.

One interesting point is that flooding is not any more successful at resolving phobias and panic than any other technique. If it were, that might change things. Given that it has the same success rate as less harrowing methods and that our dogs do not have the ability to understand what is happening, it is not a method that educated or qualified behaviour technicians and consultants will use.

Of course, you can always find some unqualified trainer on the internet who’ll promise to help your dog overcome their fears in a 30-minute session. That will almost certainly be flooding.

Accidental exposure

The problem with this definition of flooding is that it assumes that if it’s not done in the name of therapy then it’s not flooding.

This is why it’s more sensible to think of flooding sometimes being accidental. We do not mean to cause our dogs to panic, but it happens. Most of the dogs I’ve worked with who are suffering with the after-effects of flooding have never had this done on purpose. It was just that their guardian thought they were doing the right thing in helping their dog get used to stuff they were scared of.

It’s easy to cause that accidental flooding.

You don’t need to go to a therapist for your claustrophobia to find yourself in a tight spot without a way out. Life throws up plenty of accidental situations in which that will happen.

Inescapable situations

All that needs to happen to cause flooding is that the dog cannot get away or create space. This is easily done with dogs and cats. In fact, one method I heard of to help cats get used to dogs is to put the cat in a crate in the space where the dog is so that the cat cannot escape. This means that instead of running away, the cat would get used to the dog. In principle.

You can perhaps see why people use such methods. We think we are being kind and that things will move more quickly. We also know that the animals are safe so nothing bad will happen. Just like a therapist knows that nothing bad will really happen to you if you are locked in a small cupboard to cure your claustrophobia.

However, our dogs and cats do not know this.

People are often driven to using crates, travel cages, barriers, leads and muzzles to put the dog into a situation from which they cannot escape because they know the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term costs. And we know no real harm will come to the dog.

This is especially true with things our dog is afraid of. If our dog would normally run away from things or keep their distance, it can be very hard to help them get over their fears.

Imagine a dog who is afraid of car travel for example. Perhaps they have a very long history of avoiding the car. If they didn’t have the lead on them, maybe they would never go near the car at all. No matter how much you’ve tried to bribe them, it just doesn’t work.

In fact, they start to get suspicious every time you get the lead or food out.

Full emotional intensity

Is it true that it’s not really flooding if it’s not at the full emotional intensity?

Well that’s another problem with this definition.

During desensitisation, a crucial thought process occurs. This process is called cognitive reappraisal. What happens during this time is that competing learning takes place to tell us that the thing we were afraid of is safe.

Most desensitisation processes look like very gradual, very mild, very gentle exposure.

Say for instance you were working on your claustrophobia, your therapist might teach you some relaxation strategies and then ask you to imagine a small place that you would be relatively comfortable in. They could also do in vivo or ‘real life’ exposure too. For instance, after chatting to you about what spaces feel safe, they may take you to one place that’s just a little smaller than that.

They may help you relax beforehand.

Relaxation is often a crucial part of therapy with humans because it lowers arousal levels and creates mildly pleasant emotions. These two factors along with predictability and control allow us to overcome our fears easily and quickly.

With Dogs

Clearly, this is more complex with dogs. If only it were as simple as finding them a comfortable couch and asking them to relax through a guided meditation before imagining a small space!

With dogs, we are limited to ‘real life’ exposure. We can also specifically and carefully teach relaxation strategies. There are plenty of ways to do this, like using a taught settle. Leslie McDevitt’s Take A Breath protocol and Dr Karen Overall’s biofeedback methods do the same. Others use massage techniques.

Some people pair up a cue that elicits a feeling of relaxation, like the smell of coconut does for me. It reminds me of all my summer holidays to such an extent that it becomes impossible not to feel a little better when I smell coconut suntan lotion. We can do the same for our dogs.

It is very hard though to expect dogs to remain calm when they’re around things that scare them.

If you’re no fan of spiders, you can imagine how challenging it is to try and keep relaxed when there’s an 8-legged fiend waiting for you in the corner.

We can also reduce the intensity of triggers. This means making them as small and as innocuous as possible. You can find many strategies to do this in the Lighten Up Resilience Roadmap. This free guide also explains cognitive reappraisal.

Helping your dog relax when prompted and reducing the strength and duration of triggers is usually very effective.

So why can this end up as flooding?

The problem with the definition is the notion of ‘full emotional intensity’.

That’s NOT necessary for flooding – at all!

In fact, what we now know is that desensitisation does not happen without reappraisal. This new learning competes with all those old fear memories. But reappraisal mostly occurs with mild emotions. In fact, the more heightened your arousal and emotions, the less likely it is to happen. The more likely our dogs are in those circumstances to default to their usual response.

For example, let’s say you have a cocker spaniel who really enjoys making all the pigeons flap. But they’ve become so frantic to get to the pigeons that they pull almost all the way to the park. Now they’ve started scanning the world for pigeons before you even get there and they’re now starting to react to litter or anything caught up in the wind.

Desensitisation would definitely help.

But if we try to do it when our dogs are fizzing with emotions and arousal, it is incredibly unlikely to happen. That’s why we need to go back to teaching calm and reducing the strength of triggers. We can also help them learn to focus on other things as well.

‘Full emotional intensity’ is not necessary for flooding.

And fearful dogs?

Absolutely the same. Today, it was a windy, blowy day outside – the kind of day that puts up lots of odours of cats and makes them swirl about. My dog was a little aroused and excited for much of the walk. Not anything I’d like to think of as ‘full emotional intensity’ at all. Still, enough that she had three or four shake-offs and she pulled me towards four or five things where normally she does not pull much at all.

When we came back in the house, I put my treat pouch down on the cabinet. The clip made slightly more noise than usual.

She jumped.

It’s incredibly predictable when we’ll temporarily sensitise to things. Arousal plus emotion usually prime us to notice the next thing that happens.

Now I’ve no doubt my dog will recover quickly – she’s resting on the couch and I’m sure that if I were to make the same noise now, she’d not react to it.

But if something happened that she was already sensitive to, my work would be much harder. For instance, she once got her collar caught in the drawer and panicked. It took her a long time to come back near the drawer – months even. If, this morning, she’d got her collar caught up in the drawer again, I’m sure it would not be something that she would recover so quickly from.

Why does desensitisation risk flooding?

When our dogs are exposed to things that they cannot move away from because they are on a lead, in a small space or in something like a crate, they do not need exposure at the full emotional intensity. It does not need to be deliberate.

This definition from a dog training book is exactly why we risk flooding. All we need is the inescapable bit. Full emotional responses are not necessary. Being deliberate makes no difference to the dog. Whether we intended to do it or not, the effect is the same.

And if we don’t risk flooding, we risk accidental re-exposure. We also risk the process taking months longer than it should because we keep accidentally pushing too far.

What’s the solution then?

The solution

The first parts of this are contained in this article: only do it when the dog is experiencing mild emotions and mildly aroused. Keeping to predictable venues will also help. Certainty is important.

Where we can, making sure our dog can choose to investigate or not is helpful. It is, however, unhelpful if our dog is impulsive as they are likely to investigate anyway, risking resensitisation.

Reducing the intensity and duration of stimuli will also help – especially if we can incorporate them into daily life and make sure our dog has plenty of opportunity to rest in between.

The second part is to give our dog predictable structures that help take their mind off things and focus on more fruitful, more productive activities. Scentwork is always a good one, but a simple scatter feed from time to time will also help. Our dogs don’t need to be trained to do detection work to really build up their skills.

Desensitisation can be a powerful tool alongside other techniques.

Of course, having a good skillset and being able to disengage is also important. You can find the 42 Lighten Up Skills for Resilience on this short course.

This article is part of a series on desensitisation.