Sensitisation and dogs: why arousal matters

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Sensitisation and dogs: why arousal matters

April 16, 2024 Uncategorised 0

Many of us know that we do not want our dogs to get more sensitive to the things in life. It doesn’t matter if those are things that that excite them or scare them.

We don’t want them to become more sensitive to things they can chase for example. None of us wants to try and walk our spaniel through the woods if they are so sensitive to squirrels that they cannot ignore them. If we know this will make their recall worse, we’d probably like them to be a little less sensitive to ground-nesting birds and squirrels. Walking a highly sensitive, frustrated dog is a lot of hard work.

Likewise if our dog is fearful. We want them to get used to the scary things in life. It’s not helpful if they are accumulating more and more things to be afraid of.

So, on the whole, we’re trying to avoid making things worse.

It is, however, very easy to make things worse. It’s very easy to sensitise our dogs rather than helping them get used to the world.

Understanding why dogs sensitise rather than habituate to the world can help us avoid accidental sensitisation.

The role of arousal

Arousal is one reason dogs may become more sensitive to triggers in the world around them. When they’re highly aroused, it makes it much more likely that they’ll sensitise by accident. This can be to the good stuff in life, as well as the bad.

Arousal is a simple spectrum from deep sleep to being fully alert. It describes a state of wakefulness. For instance, right now, mid-afternoon after a big lunch, I’m not particularly wakeful. Yet first thing in the morning, when I’m walking my dog through dark streets, I am much more aroused. This means that I notice things much more than I would under normal circumstances.

In many ways, this can be very pleasant. The early morning bird song, for instance, sounds much more delicious when we’re in a state of wakefulness. Many of us even take stimulants like caffeine that cause a temporary spike in arousal.

Arousal is neither good nor bad. Because it interacts with attention, optimal levels of arousal are good for completing activities. I’m at my finest a half-hour after that first cup of coffee in the morning when the world is fine. At that time, I can really focus.

The more aroused we are, the more narrow our attention becomes.

However, when we are in states of very high alertness, our attention can be so narrow that we make mistakes. Sometimes, we may even miss other relevant cues that help us make sense of a situation.

Arousal and sensitisation

Intense states of arousal also make it more likely that we will temporarily sensitise to things. This is one reason it’s not a good idea to try and help our collies learn to ignore cars when they’re excited to be out right at the beginning of a walk. This is prime time for sensitisation to occur.

Our dogs are likely to sensitise to all kinds of triggers. Those can include exciting things, especially other animals. For instance, if they’re in a keen sense of alertness and they spot their first pigeon, it makes it much easier for them to sensitise to pigeons. The same is true of all kinds of animal and bird.

It is also true for noises.

Noise sensitivity troubles many dogs. My own dog Lidy is very sensitive to gunshot and fireworks for example. This is especially true because the first time she heard fireworks, they were very loud and unexpected. Now, she’s sensitive to fireworks that can barely be heard. She is also sensitive to thunder.

We can think of states of arousal as relatively flavourless. What this means is that they aren’t good or bad, positive or negative. Arousal is simply a state of wakefulness or alertness. That means when aroused, our dogs can sensitise to the good stuff in life, as well as the bad.

The body language of arousal

Because there are so many different dog breeds, it can be very difficult to say there is one specific sign of arousal. Sometimes, dogs lose control over fine motor behaviour which is why we might notice their behaviour gets more bouncy, more exuberant or more intense.

Many of us will know dogs who might start snatching or grabbing treats, for example, when they do not do that usually.

These can act as barometers of arousal in many ways.

We may also notice that their tail carriage changes. Lidy’s tail windmills when aroused, making full circles. Heston’s tail quite often shifted from low tail carriage to high tail carriage, curving over his back.

As you can see here, Heston’s ear position changes from the photo on the left where he is more alert – possibly to a sound or something to the right of the photo. His mouth position also changes. The shape of his eyes changes. Even his tongue carriage and where his tongue is in his mouth tells me a little about his arousal levels.

Understanding our dog’s individual body language can help us identify their unique barometers for arousal levels.

The link between arousal and sensitisation

Being in a heightened state of watchfulness or alertness can prime an individual to respond with more intensity than they would normally. For example, walking into a spiderweb when you’re calm probably won’t freak you out too much. Walk into the same web when you’re on edge, and you may find that your response to it is much bigger.

Although sensitisation is a temporary process on the whole, the more we sensitise to triggers, the easier it gets for us to re-sensitise to them in the future.

The longer our history and the more time we spend sensitised to triggers – good or bad – the more likely it is that we’ll re-sensitise again to them in the future.

There are other factors as well that also make it likely we’ll sensitise or re-sensitise. Arousal often ties into anticipatory emotion states like anxiety or anticipation. By fuelling those emotions, it also makes it more likely we’ll sensitise to the good stuff or the bad stuff in life.

This is especially true when the triggers are highly intense. Add arousal, emotional intensity, trigger intensity and uncertainty to a situation, and it just makes it even more likely that our dogs will have a much stronger reaction to the world than they would usually.

You may think of this as trigger stacking for example, where our dog seems to cope at first and then struggles later.

If you notice, for example, that your dog gets worse and worse during firework “season” this is often why. But the same is true if your dog is struggling around animals or moving vehicles too. That doesn’t matter if it’s fear-based or excitement-based.

Working with arousal

Because we instinctively understand that arousal causes all kinds of issues, it’s typical to try to work to reduce arousal.

This can be helpful. Introducing our dogs to high-octane play with other dogs is going to make that experience even more wonderful. It will also make it even more difficult for our dogs to walk away from unfamiliar dogs in the future. Making sure the dogs are relatively calm and being able to interrupt them if they can’t disengage can make sure that things don’t tip over into a fight.

On the other hand, this requires us to constantly manage our dogs. It also places a burden of calm upon them. What I mean by this is that we teach calmness in one context and then expect them to take responsibility for calmness in other places.

We also know the risks of a fight in social interactions, or our dogs catching and killing small creatures, so we may often rely on management. This can be very frustrating for dogs. It also doesn’t teach them how to disengage when they are aroused.

It doesn’t teach dogs the skills to disengage by themselves before things get too fizzy. Being able to take a breather, calm down and then go back into highly exciting situations is how adult dogs can function at their best.

When we constantly manage our dogs or prompt calm, it can help. In the long term, however, it may mean that our dogs don’t learn to manage their own arousal levels and disengage from highly emotional situations.

Making good decisions

One thing that can be very helpful is interactive play with a dog. This can be something gentle and physical if your dog enjoys this, or it can involve an object like a tug toy.

Some people worry unnecessarily about tug toys. They think it will “ruin” their gundog even if they do very little gundog work, or they think it will cause dominance behaviours. Both of these are not true: dogs are highly contextual and understand the difference between tug and bird retrieval just as they understand things are a game.

Tug is good because you and your dog are involved, often face to face, so that you can help increase energy levels and decrease them. You can build in breaks, help your dog disengage before they get grabby, and reward them if they disengage of their own volition.

It was through tug play that my dog Lidy learned to disengage when she was getting too aroused. Simply by encouraging her to take a break, she learned quickly to disengage from play.

It also helps if we can help our dogs out from time to time. Having a really good cue to interrupt our dogs so they can take a minute can help. We can sandwich periods of intense activity between periods of less intensity. This way, we can use play as a forum to manipulate arousal levels and help our dog make good decisions when they’re highly alert too.

If you think about it, we use sport in the same way. Being intensely alert on the tennis court means that we can be highly responsive to a fast-paced game. At the same time, we can stop, take breaths and learn to control our frustration or our excitement so that we can manage our arousal levels.

Involving arousal in training

By including opportunities for our dogs to learn how to hold back when aroused, we make it easier for them to cope. Instead of everything falling apart simply because they are highly alert, it means that they can learn how to make good decisions even so. Avoiding arousal or asking for calm at all times is unhelpful. Everything then tends to fall apart the moment that the world gets exciting or uncertain.

We can also include skills for managing frustration and impulses in the activities we do with our dogs. By focusing on building resilience, we can trial these skills when our dogs are aroused. Even better is when we can teach our dogs to disengage by themselves when things get too challenging.

This is a core skill in the Lighten Up Resilience Roadmap. You can find the free e-book here.

You can also find a link to the Resilience Skills and to the Roadmap course here.