Crucial questions about desensitisation with your dog
Desensitisation is a technique used in many situations where our dogs get sensitive to things that they’d normally cope with. This can be to noises, like fireworks or traffic. It can also be to people or even to other dogs.
Most people start off with a dog trainer or behaviour consultant to help them. Whether you do this or you go it alone, you will probably be doing the bulk of the work yourself. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of seven questions that people commonly ask me before they start.
You can also find more information about desensitisation in this post
#1 What is desensitisation?
Sometimes, our dogs get a little more sensitive to things that they experience repeatedly in life. Often, this can happen because they were already excited or anxious about the world when something startled them. They can then become very sensitive to these things, causing them to have a dramatic response to them.
Instead of noticing fireworks in the distance, for instance, they’ll respond as if the fireworks are going off right in the room. Our dogs may become extremely anxious. It could even cause them to panic. Wherever our dog has an extremely intense response to things like this, it’s always useful to discuss this with your vet because it may be that your dog is struggling with a phobia.
Some things in life are relatively unpleasant. These things often involve mild restraint. It could even be something as simple as being on the lead or trying on a new harness. If your dog thinks it feels weird and awkward, they can be very sensitive to those things. Muzzles are another thing that many dogs would benefit from a gentle approach to help them get used to things. Some people also use desensitisation to help dogs get used to absences too.
#2 Why do we use desensitisation?
The aim of desensitisation is to help our dogs get used to things that are not a cause for panic. It can also be to help them get used to things like car travel, fireworks, noises or even things like crates so that they do not panic. In that way, we can use it preventatively.
It’s important to take these five factors into consideration. It is easy to inadvertently sensitise our dogs to things if we overdo it. For that reason, we should take it easy. We should leave space between trials, making sure that our dogs are not aroused, anxious or excited when they encounter things that they could be sensitive to.
We can also help our dogs by teaching them to relax separately. That may be things like learning to settle on a mat or even to do things like dog yoga or massage. Adding pleasant or positive experiences should also help.
We use desensitisation because it is the least harmful method of gentle, gradual exposure to the world. There are things in life that it is normal for a dog to be afraid of or excited by: other dogs, unfamiliar people, guests coming onto the property, loud noises, absences and restraint.
If our dogs are struggling, our first job is to make sure we’re not asking too much. It’s not normal for a puppy to tolerate ten hours of absence, especially when they’ve just been removed from their litter. Many people know this about work hours, but forget that for a puppy to sleep on their own in a cold and unfamiliar kitchen or living room, it can also be very distressing.
#3 Where might we use desensitisation?
It’s often used with absences. For instance, if you have a new puppy or you’ve just adopted an adult rescue dog, you may want to build up to longer absences gradually so that you don’t cause panic. Doing it gradually can help your dog learn that it’s perfectly normal to be on our own for a little while and that everything is fine.
Many people try to do this preventatively, but it can also be done if your dog has separation-related behaviour or anxiety.
It can also be done preventatively with noises. For instance, it’s a good idea for young dogs to realise that loud noises do not mean bad things will happen. Helping dogs get used to washing machines and household sounds like vacuum cleaners can help. Fireworks, gunshot and thunder are common noises that can scare dogs.
Husbandry activities like grooming and nail-clipping can also benefit from preventative desensitisation with young dogs or with new rescues. It can feel strange to consider these as things a dog might not like. That said, a surprising number of dogs struggle with being handled. Vet procedures are another area where desensitisation can be used preventatively or as part of a treatment protocol.
Any kind of barrier or restraint can cause dogs to panic. They can get overwhelmed in enclosed spaces, whether that is a travel crate or on lead. It’s not unusual for puppies to panic the first time they are on lead. This can also happen with adult dogs who have not been on lead. This is especially true if bad things happened to them on lead.
Things dogs wear like raincoats, specialist boots, lifejackets and harnesses can feel strange if they’re not used to them. Muzzles are the same. Desensitisation can help ease dogs into wearing equipment.
#4 How long should a session last?
It’s not just about the length of the session but the intensity of the exposure, our dog’s arousal levels beforehand and their emotional state. We appreciate that it’s best if our dog isn’t anxious, but people don’t always take the same consideration with excitement.
Any intense emotional state can contribute to sensitisation and prevent our dogs getting used to things.
It’s also about the gaps between exposures.
Let’s take fireworks as an example. If we keep the noise at a very low level, and we make sure our dogs are calm and relaxed beforehand, our dogs may tolerate exposure for a much longer time.
It also depends on how distinctive the trigger is. For instance, fireworks in a soundtrack with other music is different from fireworks that appear as if at random when there is no other noise at all.
So it is not easy to say how long a session should or could last.
It also depends on the dog, of course!
If they are panicking, they may benefit from pharmaceutical support from the vet. Medication is not a substitute for desensitisation, however. It will be important to continue the programme at the same time. Because medications like benzodiazepines also create a specific context in the body, when they stop, it’s easier for old habits to be revived. For that reason, you should always discuss fine tapering with your vet and make sure you revisit previous desensitisation steps with your dog.
#5 How long does it take to desensitise a dog?
Well, that depends! You’d think that it would take longer for a dog who has a strongly phobic response or panics. This is not actually true, however. It can be that strongly phobic dogs get used to triggers more quickly than dogs who have a milder response.
Strong responses also lead us to trial medications and discuss things with our vet, taking on board other approaches.
Sometimes it can take much longer for our dog to get used to things that are simply slightly unpleasant.
One thing is for sure: it won’t happen overnight.
It depends on other factors as well. Sometimes teaching them skills to complement what you’re doing can help. For instance, with grooming and husbandry, we may teach our dogs active consent behaviours like targeting or giving a paw. ‘Start button’ behaviours can give dogs a lot more control. As a result, desensitisation may happen much more quickly.
If we’re working preventatively, we may not need to do very much at all.
It can also depend on how long the dog has been living with the behaviour for. A long history of panic can mean that it takes longer for us to help the brain take on board new learning.
#6 If my dog is sensitive to noises, can I use a soundtrack?
The answer to this is also ‘it depends’.
Some dogs know the difference between sounds on a television, radio, phone or laptop. Hearing gunshot on a television programme may be safe to them because they can distinguish between that and the real thing.
The only way to really know is to see if your dog responds to soundclips played through speakers in that way.
For instance, you may think that you could desensitise your dog to the sound of children by playing a soundtrack and starting at a very low volume, but if your dog understands the difference between artificial sounds and real sounds, it may not be much use.
The same is true for fireworks and thunder. Because thunder is often associated with atmospheric changes and lightning or rain, it may be that you splash out on a sound programme only to realise that your dog doesn’t respond to the artificial version even at full blast.
Check before you buy!
If you’re one of the lucky few whose dogs do respond in the same way to artificial sound as to real sounds, you can use this to your advantage because you can start at a very low volume with some other ambient noise and make sure the session is very short.
#7 Is desensitisation permanent?
Again, it depends! Best work off the notion that it is probably not.
For puppies and very young dogs under four months of age or so, desensitisation can be more effective than it is with older dogs.
With adolescents, they struggle to embed new learning that competes with old learning, especially related to fear. Thus, with dogs from 6 or 7 months or so through to adulthood, you may need to adapt your programme a little and revisit often.
The biggest factor as to why desensitisation fails is that the animal had been sensitised before. Because it is one of the simplest and most powerful forms of learning that is very tightly tied to survival, it is easy for us to re-sensitise to something we have already been sensitive to.
Desensitisation needs to be generalised. This means you need to practise it in different places. It also means if you move house, emotions like separation anxiety can recur even tough you thought you’d nailed it in your last home. It is very context-specific.
Desensitisation also fails after a time lapse. This is one reason why we can carry out a programme with fireworks only for that fear to return the next time there are fireworks. The same is true for children and babies crying.
A little refresh from time to time will certain not hurt.
Other things we can do
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.