The impact of the body on canine behaviour

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

The impact of the body on canine behaviour

May 28, 2024 Uncategorised 0

The risks of sensitisation are important ones to consider with our dogs.

Although sensitisation is a temporary process, it can create a cascade that follows. When we think of sensitisation, it’s often easier to think of its opposite process: habituation. Habituation simply means getting used to things in the world that were previously noteworthy.

For example, I’d habituated to all the greenery in my garden. When the first purple flowers of aquilegia burst through, they were so vivid and noteworthy that they caught my eye. After a few days, I stopped noticing them, even though nothing had really changed.

Attentional processes

Our attentional processes are not designed to process every single thing in our world. If you think of all the things you can see right now, you’re probably not paying attention to many of them. We tune things out if they are irrelevant to our needs in the moment.

Very simply, our attention can be caught by two things. One of these are relevant stimuli in the world that help us meet our goals. If I am out on a walk across the moors on a hot day, my goal might be to find a shady spot where I can temporarily stop and take a breath. Thus, I’ll be on the lookout for trees, for sheltered spots or even for cliff edges where I can stop for a while.

We call this relevance ‘salience’ in psychology. Salience simply means things become more or less relevant depending on our needs.

Some of that salience is ‘always’. Under most circumstances anyway. If you’re about to be hit on the head by something coming towards you at speed, those things are always salient. We come with that response as an innate, instinctive reaction.

Loud noises or strong vibrations are other things that cut through whatever else we are doing to capture our attention. They have such value for our survival that Nature doesn’t take chances over whether we should notice them or not.

The other kind of thing that often catches our attention is novelty.

Being able to identify novel or distinctive things also has survival value. It helps if we can identify change and categorise it into safe or not safe, edible or not edible and so on.

Why we sensitise

Normally, we habituate quickly to novelty. And once things are no longer relevant to our goals in life, we tend to tune them out.

I have a wonderful video of my dog Heston walking with my other dog Lidy. We were walking past a field of sheep. Heston ignored the sheep even though they are close to the fence. He carried on with his walk as if they are not even there. In other words, they were as irrelevant to him as the cars and bushes we passed. He had tuned them out completely. They were neither novel nor relevant.

Lidy, however, notices them. She struggles to tune out moving things in the world, particularly moving animals. If it moves and she can see it, she will notice it. This morning, she noticed two lambs about 200m away from us and a crow about 300m from us among the other things that caught her eye.

Normally, Lidy dismisses birds very quickly as irrelevant. Although she’ll chase a pheasant or a grouse if the opportunity presents itself, she doesn’t go out of her way to do so. She is not scanning the world for birds as one cocker spaniel I work with does.

However, when we first met British urban pigeons, she sensitised to them.

Instead of getting used to them and disregarding them as she usually does, she startled and tried to catch one.

Why was that?

The factors that influence sensitisation

The first thing was that they were relatively novel and distinct. Although we had wood pigeons in our garden in France, they don’t behave in exactly the same way as urban pigeons. Their flight distance is much bigger and they would fly to safety the moment my dogs came into the garden. They also don’t flock in large groups. Nor do they stand out in a garden with lots of trees and bushes.

British urban pigeons, on the other hand, have a short flight distance. That meant we got much nearer to them before they decided to fly off. They also tend to flock, so there were a lot in one spot. In the manicured lawned gardens of a North Manchester housing estate, they were also very distinct. Pecking at some food source in the middle of a road made them really stand out.

This was also a new environment for Lidy and her first walk in a new place. This creates uncertainty, which can spark feelings of excitement and curiosity just as it can stoke feelings of anxiety. In other words, her body primes her to startle and to sensitise.

As we know, personality traits can influence which dogs are likely to end up sensitising. Bold dogs who are ‘high responders’, going into novel environments and exploring everything, are one of those types. Novelty is exciting and incentivises approach behaviour. Lidy is such a dog. Many working breeds are; nobody wants a gundog or herding dog, terrier or sighthound that hangs back. Years of selection have altered things.

A pattern of sensitisation

Beyond dogs who go in rather than sensibly hanging back in new environments, dogs who experience dramatic and rapid shifts in emotion can also be at risk of sensitising. This shifting emotional trait is known as ‘lability’. It means our dogs swing from high to low very quickly. They are the dogs with the BIG behaviours and the dramatic reactions.

Everything is either hugely exciting or hugely scary.

When I think of my dog Ralf, he was the opposite of an emotionally labile dog. Nothing really got him highly excited, and nothing really set him off kilter. He was a very emotionally even dog who seemed to be simply content most of the time. Lidy is the opposite of Ralf. Her predecessor Flika was even more labile.

Being a dog who notices and approaches novelty in the world and a dog who is prone to the full range of emotions may put our dogs more at risk of sensitisation than other dogs are. A Lidy will spook more easily than a Ralf.

Novelty and new situations also cause arousal levels to rise. Arousal is also implicated in why we sensitise rather than getting used to things. For example, the day that Lidy sensitised to the pigeons was a new walk in a new place the day after a very long and tiring journey. She had not slept well.

Finally, the intensity of the world matters. Lidy probably wouldn’t have sensitised quite so easily to those pigeons had they been fewer and further away.

Sensitisation is temporary

On the whole, sensitisation will clear up on its own. As long as our arousal levels drop, our emotions are more stable and the intensity of the stuff we sensitised to drops, it’s likely we’ll habituate eventually.

Dog trainers can help with this process through ‘desensitisation’. This literally de-sensitises the dog, turning the dial back down on their reactions. It does so through a gradual exposure gradient starting at less intense and working up to more intense.

It’s useful to do this graduated programme of exposure from time to time. This is particularly true if you think your dog is at risk of sensitising in a good way or a bad one.

For Lidy, she is very sensitive to small prey species moving quickly, so I did a bit of work to encourage her not to sensitise again in the future.

This didn’t look much like training. It just looked like hanging around low-intensity pigeons so she could get used to them.

This is what I did with Lidy with the pigeons. Because she is not very interested in birds on the whole, I didn’t think there was a huge risk of her sensitising further, so we simply spent some time around pigeons at less intensity and I did some exercises with her to help her chill out a bit.

This means she now has a normal level of attention as far as pigeons are concerned. The ones that occasionally walk along the wall, a metre from our window, she sometimes watches with mild interest, but most pigeons do not catch her eye.

However, being sensitised once makes it easier for us to sensitise in future.

The cascade beyond sensitisation

Sometimes, however, sensitisation can cause a cascade of further behavioural reactions. It doesn’t matter if our dog is afraid of the triggers or if they are excited by them.

For instance, if chasing pigeons had been lots of fun, Lidy might then have shown more interest in pigeons next time.

Over time, she could start looking out for the cues that predict pigeons or notice the context where she sees pigeons. This can then cause arousal and excitement before there are even pigeons on the scene.

As a result, she’s then primed to respond to pigeons more intensely. Arousal and intense anticipatory emotions lead to re-sensitisation too.

In fact, she’s then learned the cues that predict pigeons and can get as excited to see them as she does for the pigeons themselves. This then triggers changes in behaviour. Her impulse control is reduced and her desire to chase is increased. She then starts pulling on the lead.

The same is true for things that make our dogs anxious. Following sensitisation to a cyclist who came too close, one dog I worked with then started scanning the environment to keep an eye out for pesky cyclists. Seeing a cyclist in the distance then triggered the same feelings he had if they came close to him, and he would become very anxious.

He would then panic and freeze if he was unable to escape.

The link with health and pain

For those initial reflexes that spark a strong reflex response, these can be modulated by pain.

What this means is that physical pain can cause us to respond more vigorously to noxious stimuli. Our responses are enhanced. Think about if you have a toothache for example. If someone slams a car door very loudly, you may find that it causes you to respond more dramatically.

This link in dogs is fairly well evidenced. For instance, the link between dogs who have musculoskeletal pain or neuropathic pain and sound sensitivity is well-known. If you have a dog who is very fearful of loud noises, having a health check is one of the first things a behaviour consultant would recommend.

The same is true if your dog struggles with separation-related behaviours that seem to be triggered by noise or disturbance outside. In a recent study (De Assis et al. 2020) they identified a type of separation-related behaviour that they called reactive-inhibited related SRPs which is categorised by dogs who are sensitive to noises outside the property and then tend to panic if their social support is not present.

For example, perhaps they hear a person passing outside. This then triggers a response. Because their social support network is not present, this then causes them to panic.

This category of dogs who struggle with separation may certainly be the ones who are worth understanding in terms of health issues.

Pain and sensitisation

Being in pain, then, may alter our initial response to noticeable things in the world. It can also affect attentional processes. For instance, you may have had times where you have not been well and this has interfered with your ability to concentrate on the good stuff in life.

Being in pain may be one of the reasons an adult dog develops a sensitivity to things that never used to bother them. It’s not unknown for older dogs to develop sensitivities to dogs who are barking in the neighbourhood – dogs they used to ignore. When adult dogs become sensitive to things they formerly were used to, it can be a clear sign of health-related changes.

For this reason, we may want to take some time with our dogs if they have a known health condition. They may need us to be more relaxed, particularly in new environments. Instead of rushing them through life, we may need to take more time.

If we suspect that our dog is sensitive to things such as noise, then it’s also important to get a health check. Pain can often be better managed, even if the original problem cannot be cured or resolved.

Pain can also mean our dog struggles to sleep as well. This has a bunch of complications beyond simply being tired the next day and making it more likely they’ll sensitise to various things.

Pain teaches

Many vets recommend a concurrent behaviour modification & management programme.

There are good reasons for this.

Pain is a remarkably efficient teacher, and mammals can be left with behavioural remnants of pains past that have left their mark on the present. For example, following an injury, a dog may behave in ways that compensate for the injury, even though surgery has been undertaken and our dogs are taking pain medication.

It’s a mistake to think that behaviour will always return to ‘normal’ following successful surgery or pain management. It may be necessary for our dogs to re-learn how to navigate the world just as we humans may need physical therapy or occupational therapy after an injury.

Pain can often be a very powerful reason that contributes to why our dogs learn to avoid things. If it hurt, it’s helpful to avoid it! However, if it only hurt at the time because you were injured, it’s not a particularly useful skill to carry with you, being afraid of everything simply because it hurt you as a result of your health at the time.

For that reason, the Resilience Roadmap may help. This free download can help. It is a 160-page e-book designed to help dogs learn how to cope in the world. There is also an accompanying webinar for £24 should you wish to purchase that and find out ways to put the Roadmap into practice.