Overcoming Reactivity: Using Desensitisation With Your Dog
Many trainers will suggest using a method known as desensitisation if you have a dog who barks and lunges. If you’ve ever thought that your dog could just do with ‘getting used’ to things, then this technique is for you.
Many guardians use this method of gentle exposure. Sometimes they do so alongside other training techniques. At other times, it is the main focus of our work to help our dogs.
Done well, it can mean your dog learns to ignore all their triggers. They can just get on with their business of being a dog. For example, instead of barking and lunging at strangers who have no intention of interacting with them, they can simply walk on by. If they’re stressed about other dogs, life would be much easier if they could just walk away with you.
Despite how easy it may seem, densitisation can sometimes go wrong. Avoid the pitfalls and sharpen up your toolkit as we look at ways to help your dog get used to the world.
What is desensitisation?
Our dogs probably ignore most stuff on walks. They’ll happily walk past all kinds of things and then struggle with one or two experiences. Each dog has their own triggers. For some, that can be strange people they see out and about. For others, that can be other dogs. Some dogs bark and lunge at vehicles. Other dogs struggle when they see other animals like horses or cows.
Many mornings in the week, my dog Lidy and I get barked at by a gentleman shih tzu. Although we have no intention whatsoever of interfering with his morning constitutional, he barks at us anyway. Often, we are following at a distance, and he always seems pretty calm. In fact, sometimes, he walks straight past our house. As long as he can’t see Lidy, he’s just a dog on a walk.
Desensitisation is a gradual exposure strategy we can use with fearful or anxious dogs. It is actually really simple. Behind that simplicity, however, it can get pretty technical.
What does desensitisation look like?
Imagine you’re afraid of deep water. If I were to work with you on your fears, I’d start you off with small steps – no throwing you in at the deep end! I might start by encouraging you to paddle in safe, shallow water or set up a paddling pool for you to dip your feet into. Maybe we could get out our wellies and go splash through some puddles.
I’d not only start small, I’d also step it up gradually. We wouldn’t go from a paddling pool to the white water rapids, for example. Well, not in one fell swoop! Maybe we’d go from the paddling pool to a small, slow stream or a lake. Perhaps from there, we’d try the learner pool at the swimming baths or even a large jacuzzi.
I’d also make it easy for you to step it up. We’d get out the floats and the lilos. When desensitisation is also fun, that can make things a whole lot easier.
You’d lead the pace, but I’d set the world up to help you move on. Maybe I’d help you set goals and challenges so that you don’t stagnate. Everybody tells themselves they’re happy without really conquering their fears, so working with a partner helps keep the momentum.
Even so, I’d never force you to go faster than you could cope with. If I thought you were too confident, I’d maybe step it back a bit. And if I thought you looked like you were beginning to feel uncomfortable, I’d take it back a notch.
Keeping sessions short, simple and fun is important. It’s also important to build momentum and increase the challenge incrementally without you ever feeling fear.
And what does it look like in dogs?
The same. Simple, short and gradual.
Since we can’t tell dogs that they are safe, I may use some things that help them feel safe. These safety cues help dogs know that nothing bad will happen. They also help them relax.
Imagine if I couldn’t tell you that you could trust me not to throw you in at the deep end. You’d probably spend a lot of your first sessions worrying that I really might push you further than you wanted to go. Without language, it can make it really hard to communicate to our dogs that they are safe. Even if I could reassure you, you might not believe me anyway.
This is one of the problems we have with dogs and desensitisation, when people say that it’s not making a difference. If our dogs are uncertain or unsure, then they won’t be relaxed. We can’t tell them that they’re safe and ask them to do a guided meditation with us. That means we have to find other ways to ensure that our dogs know they are safe.
Safety cues can really help our dogs understand that nothing bad will happen. We can also teach our dogs to relax and even take a breath out of context. That means when we’re out and about and our dogs start to seem uncertain, we can encourage them to relax.
Other than that, it looks pretty much the same as it does with humans. We start small. Then we go in incremental paces that increase challenge whilst also ensuring our dogs feel safe. It can also be helpful to make it fun. There’s other stuff that we can do to help our dogs have positive associations as well.
So how can it go wrong?
The first way is that we’ve not helped our dogs understand that they are safe. It’s not enough to keep hanging around their triggers. It can take our dogs a long time to realise that there’s no reason to feel afraid. Being anxious to start with means that desensitisation will not work or that it will take an extremely long time.
Desensitisation is also a real challenge for dogs who are frustrated rather than anxious. It can be really hard to tell the difference. This free guide and this free webinar will help you identify frustration in your dogs. When I’m working with dogs who are both anxious and frustrated, I always work on frustration first.
We don’t start exposure to triggers until they’ve got some frustration tolerance skills. If you’ve ever found yourself shouting, ‘It’s okay! He’s friendly!’ as your dog runs over to another, you may want to check out that guide first. It’s really hard to desensitise dogs to triggers that frustrate them. Exposure just makes them more and more frustrated because they can’t do what they want to do, so it’s not a kind or gentle method.
We also need to make sure we go at the dog’s pace and that they feel safe before we start. Desensitisation isn’t a process for them to learn that they are safe. It will take forever. This makes those safety cues really important. Without them, not only will desensitisation take a really long time, if it works at all, it makes setbacks more likely and it means they could end up with hundreds of exposures causing chronic anxiety and uncertainty.
Worse still, if we don’t go in gradual or incremental steps, we can run the risk of ‘flooding’. To take the swimming analogy, this would be like throwing you in the deep end.
Some unqualified or inexperienced trainers deliberately use flooding as a way to help dogs ‘face their fears’. In the same way, I guess, as some unlicensed or sadistic therapists throwing people in at the deep end as a form of therapy for humans to overcome fears.
Flooding can sometimes work with humans, but then we know what we’re signing ourselves up for. If you think it might work, you can sign yourself up to be locked in a small cupboard to cure your claustrophobia. When you realise you’ve not died and you relax, the therapist will then let you out. The difference is that YOU can consent to this and know what is happening.
Our dogs don’t have that choice.
Flooding often leads to dogs shutting down completely. It is unethical in the extreme. Even though we know it works sometimes with humans, animals cannot consent and do not understand the process.
Throwing dogs in the deep end so they learn to swim can seem like a quick fix. Short term pain for long term gain. The trouble is that the risk of causing trauma is very high. Even if it works, it is rarely pleasant. In humans, flooding is not anywhere close to 100% success. If it were, it’d be everywhere. It can be successful, but it also fails too. Short term pain, then, without any guarantee at all of long term gain.
Getting desensitisation right
You can choose to go it alone or you can work with a trainer. If you choose to work with a trainer, make sure they have experience. They should be able to explain safety cues to you and explain how to recognise low level signs of frustration, hesitation and anxiety. They should be able to explain frustration in dogs and recommend that you deal with that first. Being kind is not enough; they also need to be effective and technically proficient.
You can also go it alone, especially if you’ve completed a frustration assessment and you have ruled it out. A course on canine body language would also be an asset, or being able to recognise low level signs of fear in your own dog.
It’s helpful to use portable safety cues that help your dog relax and to teach them to settle. Some people teach their dog to breathe or to settle on a mat. These can be helpful. We should never use the mat to keep the dog in position and make it so they can’t really escape or they have to use willpower to stay put, so you may find more active strategies help, especially since these mean that you can move away if you need to.
Beyond using safety cues and teaching your dog to relax or settle, desensitisation is often used with other tools that help dogs with their fears. Sometimes, it can be helpful to build up your dog’s focus on other activities. Many anxious dogs scan the environment vigilantly meaning that they struggle to really do more fruitful dog stuff. You may want to teach them u-turns or to be able to disengage. The Lighten Up Resilience Roadmap can be really useful with that. It’s also totally free!
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.