Effective Desensitisation for Frustrated Dogs
Desensitisation can be a very useful tool if your dog is struggling. How effective it is depends very much on their problem.
When we desensitise our dogs to the world, we are helping them get used to things that cause emotional responses from them. Often, this is things that make our dog feel fearful and where they have a strong and unusual response to things.
For example, it is normal to feel startled by a loud noise. It is an ordinary and common reaction to startle when something explodes outside your house. When separated from the family, it would be normal for young dogs. It is also normal for individuals to be afraid if a stranger tries to restrain them.
What would be abnormal is if our dogs didn’t jump when something made a loud noise. It would be abnormal for a 16-week-old puppy to tolerate extended periods of absence when they had to be completely alone. And it would be abnormal for an animal to simply tolerate a stranger handling them.
Sometimes, we use desensitisation pre-emptively. What that means is that when we know these normal responses, we can help our dogs get used to things gradually. Rather than forcing them on them the first time and causing a strong reaction which we then try to push back against, we understand that these things are likely to be distressing and so we help the dog get used to it.
One example of this would be with a harness and lead. Of course these feel weird to a young dog. It’s normal for people to start gradually and build up. We may do the same thing with a muzzle.
When our dogs are frustrated, it usually means that there is a reason that they cannot get close to something they want. Before you undertake any work at all with your dog, it’s important to understand how they respond to frustration. Since learning itself can be frustrating, we need to understand this before we start. Management can also contribute accidentally to frustration.
For example, we may think that we’re doing the right thing by putting our dog away if guests arrive and they usually jump up on guests. However, this can contribute to their frustration so that when they are finally allowed out, they go nuts.
Frustration just makes it even harder for them to keep their cool. Plus, it puts the onus on the dog. They’re already struggling to keep their cool, so it’s not like they’ll get better if we don’t teach them how.
The first and most important thing to do is rule out the role that frustration is playing. You can do that with this free download to help you understand the role that it is playing in your dog’s behaviour.
You can also find this free webinar on frustration.
If you’re really looking to expand your understanding of canine frustration, this 4-hour course will also help.
Doing a few simple exercises to help our dogs learn to cope when they are frustrated will improve their ability to cope with life’s challenges.
Desensitisation for frustrated dogs
Desensitising your frustrated dog should only start when you understand their behaviour and when you have already done some work to help them cope better. If you don’t give them skills to increase their tolerance of frustration, you will find that you are doing little other than stoking the fires.
For example, lots of dogs are frustrated around other dogs. Sometimes, this is underpinned by anxiety, but not always. A socially anxious dog may feel the need to greet all unfamiliar dogs. Instead of being anxious and uncertain about how it will go, they at least know whether the dog is friendly or not.
Think of it as ripping a plaster off.
They dive in to go greet the other dog because at least then they are certain friends or certain threats.
Other dogs have simply learned that when they see another dog, it is a powerful trigger. Perhaps the other dog will play with them or they’ll be able to have a game of chase.
Being on the lead and not being able to play clearly contributes to their frustration. Some people even call this lead or leash frustration. The same can happen if the dog is behind a barrier like a gate or inside a window or car.
As you can imagine, trying to teach our dogs that they cannot go and play is very frustrating. It’s important that our dogs have got good skills in the first place.
Frustration in the home
Many people think that if their dog is destructive in the absence of humans, that their dogs have separation anxiety. Although anxiety is one reason dogs can struggle with absence, it is not the only reason. A study in 2020 showed that almost a third of problematic behaviour during human absence was actually related to frustration.
Normally, good separation anxiety protocols for dogs will involve gradual desensitisation to absence. However, if your dog is frustrated, you may find that they take longer to learn new skills. This is another time that it is very useful to rule out frustration. Front-loading some frustration skills and simple settling exercises is important for frustrated dogs. Obviously, that doesn’t matter to a dog who is simply anxious.
Frustration around wildlife & machinery
Lots of dogs are overcome by the desire to chase things. That can be small, furry creatures like squirrels or cats. It may also be larger wildlife or livestock, from deer to sheep and horses.
Occasionally, dogs get frustrated if they can’t control the movement of moving machinery like vacuum cleaners, wheelbarrows, cars, bicycles and even lawnmowers.
If your dog struggles when they’re on the lead and they can’t run off to chase things, then you can imagine how frustrating this will be to them.
Desensitisation is not a front-line tool for dogs like this if they can’t handle frustration or if their motivation to chase is very strong.
It may work if their habits are not particularly strong or if they don’t have a long history. For example, when my adopted spaniel Tilly arrived at my home, she had never seen a hen in her five years of living. She was very excited by them and tried to chase them. A few days of life on a long lead and rewarding her every time she disengaged from them helped her transition to seeing hens as nothing interesting. Working at a distance in short bursts helped enormously.
It would not have helped my adopted dog Lidy who is still very motivated to chase birds, animals and moving machines. It would just have contributed to her frustration.
What to do if a dog is very frustrated
When our dogs are very frustrated, front-loading those frustration and impulse control skills makes a huge difference. Anywhere between 3 to 12 weeks of regular, short training sessions is usually enough to make a difference. Regular practice in different locations also helps our dogs learn different contexts for their learning.
It need not take a lot of effort.
We can also teach our dogs to settle or relax when we ask. Lots of dogs struggle with arousal and have no way of learning to manage it. This may well be part of our work during those first few weeks.
Only then is our dog ready to begin a desensitisation protocol. It doesn’t matter if we’re doing this around absences, around dogs, around people our dogs really like, around other animals or around moving vehicles. If we haven’t done some work up-front, we’re just making our lives harder in the long run.
The same is true for our dogs.
It’s just frustrating all around.
Skills first, then desensitisation.
We should also find ways to reduce the intensity of the things that trigger our dog’s frustration. After all, we can’t put the onus simply onto our dogs. They’re dogs! We can’t put a hardened chaser in front of a cat and hope that we’ll be able to tell them to relax.
So we need to find ways to make triggers less triggering. You can use the Resilience Roadmap for exactly that, by the way.
Frustration and desensitisation
When our dogs are strongly motivated by things out there in the world, we have to work a little differently with them. That doesn’t matter if it’s a dog they’ve seen on the other side of the park, or an icecream a child has dropped. Whether it’s a stranger they just must ‘say hello’ to or it’s a door that’s preventing them from getting out in to the Big Wide World, our dogs need support.
When they see things that trigger their frustration, it sensitises them further. Then they end up spending all their walks trying to spot whatever it is that caused so much excitement in the first place. Because they are so busy noticing everything that’s exciting, it becomes impossible for them ever to ‘get used’ to those things. Only when we’ve reduced their frustration will they ever habituate to the world.
The world is full of frustrating triggers. Each time they see one, it is not just a predictor that rewarding experiences might just occur, it also incentivises them to do things to achieve those goals.
For example, seeing a squirrel incentivises our dogs to start trying to chase them.
Seeing a dog on the other side of the park incentivises our dogs to try and get to the them.
This arousal, intense emotion and strong motivation also makes it really hard for our dogs to ever desensitise to things. Almost impossible, in fact.
Remember all those girls who fainted when the Beatles arrived or when Elvis appeared? Arousal, intense emotion and a strong motivation to approach make the world very frustrating.
Because frustration is very unpleasant when it’s at high levels, it means our dogs will try to do more to stop it. It is most likely to increase their attempts to get to whatever it is they want to get to. Not only is chasing the cyclists strongly rewarding, it also provides relief from all that unpleasant frustration.
Seeing triggers simply incentivises our dogs to do more, to be more persistent and to try harder.
No wonder they want relief from it!
If our dogs are also anxious, and their frustration and anxiety are feeding each other, it makes it very unlikely that our dogs will ever habituate to the things that trigger their behaviour.
Imagine the dog who is frustrated because he’s seen another dog who he wants to go and see. That desire to approach can also be rooted in anxiety. Because they are uncertain what will happen, it causes anxiety. Yet if we are also calling them away and we’ve a history of rewarding them for disengaging, this puts them in a state of conflict.
Do I try to chase the other dog, or do I do what my guardian is asking?
This conflicting motivation is also something that will contribute to frustrated behaviours, making it even more likely that our dog will struggle to get used to the world.
It is no wonder that Professor Daniel Mills wrote recently that desensitisation may not be appropriate for a frustrated dog. As someone who lectures in animal behaviour at the University of Lincoln, he quite literally wrote the book on frustration in canine behaviour.
I think desensitisation is a powerful tool for our frustrated dogs, especially if that frustration masks underlying fear or anxiety.
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.