Triggers are not created equal: why our dogs sensitise

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Triggers are not created equal: why our dogs sensitise

May 7, 2024 Uncategorised 0

This week, I had three conversations with people whose dogs are sensitive towards flying insects. This is not so unexpected, even though it is rare. My dog Lidy is sensitive to wasps, having been stung by a wasp some years ago.

Unlike wasps, flies don’t do much harm if you eat them. It’s only the old lady who swallowed a fly in the nursery rhyme who ended up suffering as a result. Why would a dog who has never been stung by a wasp be afraid of flying insects?

Why is it so easy for dogs to sensitise to flying insects compared to other things?

And why do dogs’ fears and phobias fall into relatively predictable groups?

For instance, it’s not unusual for dogs to fear loud noises. Fireworks, gunshot and thunder are common triggers for dogs who struggle with noise sensitivities.

It’s also not unusual for dogs to be fearful around people or around other dogs.

In fact, nothing specific needs to have happened in their lives in order for them to respond fearfully. Not every dog with a phobia or fear of flying insects has an origin story with a virulent wasp.

Preparedness for fears

If you’re a rabbit who may get eaten by an eagle, it’s no good learning about the threat eagles pose after you’ve been swooped down upon. In all likelihood, by the time that happens, you’re a raptor’s lunch.

What would be incredibly useful from a survival perspective is if you came with pre-loaded software that prepared you to be afraid of very specific things so that you didn’t have to learn in real time when it would probably be too late.

These innate fears are species-specific. Humans are social animals, and many human phobias can be viewed as an intense response to shame or embarrassment. Public speaking is one such fear in humans.

Why would this be relevant to us?

Because humans together are able to fight off predators and to keep each other safe. Being ostracised from the group is a sure way to make us vulnerable.

We have plenty of other common fears too. I was surprised recently to find out that up to 3% of the population share my fear of blood, bones and needles. Not only that, it’s very common for people with such fears to pass out! Standing in line for vaccinations makes it very clear we’re not alone in that fear. This is true even though we may realise it’s an irrational fear.

Evolution has sometimes over-prepared us for relevant threats to our species.

Evolutionary significance of fears

The fear of snakes and spiders is fairly universal in humans, even if you live in places where snakes are not much of a threat or spiders are not highly venomous. It’s normal also to be afraid of large predators, to dislike dogs, to be afraid of open spaces or to be afraid of enclosed spaces.

These are sensible fears that help us avoid an early death.

Research by Mineka and Cook on macaques demonstrated that other mammals also have fears that are easily acquired. Their work showed that monkeys learned much more quickly to be afraid of a snake, even if they had never seen one before. Compared to learning to be afraid of a flower, monkeys learned much more quickly to fear snakes.

This was also true about overcoming fear. It was easy for the macaques to build up new learning that said flowers were safe. They put their flower-fear to one side. However, for some monkeys, their fear of snakes was never extinguished. They continued to be afraid of snakes even if snakes never harmed them.

Psychologist Martin Seligman noted that it is easier for individuals in a species to become fearful or phobic of certain categories of things compared to other categories. He thought of this as an inherited predisposition to learn fears quickly with very little teaching. In other words, you don’t need to be bitten by a snake to become afraid of them. You don’t need to fall off a cliff to become afraid of heights.

These fears are easily switched on and hard to switch off.

Some fears are easy to acquire

Seligman called this predisposition towards certain categories of stuff in the world a ‘preparedness’. What he meant by this was that there’s stuff in the world that would have posed a threat to our ancestors. Because our ancestors avoided these threats and dangers, it became an evolutionary advantage.

Although this behaviour is not hard-wired, like blinking is, evolution has ways of encoding some of this learning so that over time, it can pass from generation to generation.

These fears seem easier to acquire than others.

Neuroscientist György Buzsáki speculates that these fears are like old locks in the brain. In his book The Brain Inside Out, he thinks of these as being quite general. That means that we may never have encountered an angry bull in our lives, but it fits into the old lock that says to be afraid of large animals standing their ground. When we encounter an angry bull, it works like a new key that fits perfectly into that old lock.

Our innate behavioural patterns are flexible enough to adapt, but fixed enough to help us survive.

This is the same for dogs.

Dog fears

It is not hard for a dog to learn to be afraid of large predators. Because dogs descend from the same ancestor as wolves, coyotes and jackals, they come with pre-loaded “old locks” that evolution has preserved. Those old locks include feelings of fear entering into a rival’s territory, or being outnumbered by unfamiliar members of your own species.

Much as we’d like to think of wolves living lovely Disney-type lives where Bagheera the black panther gets on perfectly with Raksha and Rama the wolves, and Shere Khan and Baloo refrain from any killings, we know in reality that these species do not share the same levels of sociability as humans.

In other words, the normal state of affairs for dogs is to be afraid of strangers, to fear large predators, to be on guard when entering a rival’s territory, to be afraid of loud noises.

Complex mammals with complex brains also come with the ability to adapt, particularly in childhood. We know that we are born with many, many more neural networks and assemblies than we need, and that early life experience prunes these to focus on the ones that we do.

These can become ‘hard-wired’ in many ways. What this means is that it is easy for fears established in childhood to become disruptive and unhealthy by adulthood. Because we understand this, we try to make sure puppies are prepared for the world through gentle exposure.

Socialisation from early life through to fourteen weeks or so is about early familiarisation. This early familiarisation helps our young dogs learn NOT to fear things it’s normal for their species to fear.


We understand that early exposure can help our dogs live fully in our modern world.

Getting to know vacuum cleaners and roombas, robotic lawnmowers, cyclists, washing machines and the likes helps normalise these for our dogs.

However, it is very easy to sensitise our young dogs accidentally, especially when they become increasingly fearful from around 6 weeks through to 14 weeks.

With the best intentions, sometimes we can end up making things worse during this time. If we don’t know how to help our puppies desensitise effectively at this age, then they risk carrying those new fears through to adolescence.

The same is true of exciting things too.

For instance, the collie who learns aged 10 weeks that moving cars are very exciting may become highly aroused and motivated to approach cars by adolescence. We can avoid this through more careful and thoughtful exposure and experiences.

We may also have more chance of permanently addressing this sensitivity when our dogs are young. By adolescence, our lives get that bit harder because it’s easier for them to sensitise and harder for them to learn new, competing behaviours that tell them not to be afraid or not to chase.

Sensitisation and learning

Normally, sensitisation is a temporary process. We re-set (almost) once we’ve had time to process things.

However, once sensitised, it does make it easier for us to sensitise again to the same stuff in the future. For example, the German shepherd surprised by a visitor they hadn’t expected might react with more dramatic behaviour than normal, but given a break and some time to recover, they may re-set normally.

Once sensitised, however, it’s much easier to resensitise, meaning the dog will need less exposure to the trigger in the future to accidentally cause the same response.

Keep sensitising and the brain becomes an expert at knowing this is a regular threat so it’s helpful to be on the lookout for it.

It’s also very easy for us to generalise. For my dog Lidy, for instance, she has also developed fears of flies. At first, she was only afraid of wasps. She would leave the room if a wasp came in. It amazed me that she could discriminate between bees and wasps, for instance. However, over time, she has become sensitive to all flying insects.

It’s also easier for our dogs to pick up clues about the stuff that predicts the likelihood of fear-eliciting stuff appearing. Opening the living room window is one thing that Lidy has learned. When I open the window, she goes straight into the bedroom in anticipation of wasps or flies.

And when we know the clues that predict an event will occur, it’s also easy to learn avoidance behaviours. It’s not just that the window opening causes Lidy to feel afraid. It’s also that it causes her to move into the bedroom just in case a wasp comes in.

The problem of the cascade

These avoidance behaviours can be very hard to overcome.

Sensitisation can cause ripple effects through other behaviours.

For example, following her sting, Lidy became very sensitive to wasps.

Then she generalised to other flying insects.

She also learned about the likely contexts where they would be, like the living room.

She learned the things that predicted flying insects, like windows being open.

Then she learned to do things when windows open that lead to avoidance.

Now she avoids any flying insect, so it’s impossible for her to reprocess her fears and learn that wasps really only sting if you try to eat them or you don’t give them space. It’s also impossible for her to downgrade her fears of flies. As soon as the window opens, it causes a full emotional response that triggers avoidance behaviours.

This learning can be highly fixed, because she expects to feel afraid, and that’s exactly what happens. Her brain is clearly telling her that moving to the bedroom is sensible (even though wasps can go in there too and it leaves her with fewer escape options) and so that’s what she does. It’s a well-rehearsed habit that can be distressing for the individual to break.

Triggers are not created equal

Whenever we think of our dogs, it’s important to understand that it is normal for them to fear certain things. It is also normal for them to be excited by others.

It’s easy for them to learn certain behaviours and then it’s hard for us to create competing learning which will triumph if put to the test. For example, trying to recall your dog from something that is very exciting, this is much more likely to fail than recalling your dog when they have nothing else going on.

When emotions and other behaviour systems are in play, it can be very hard for us to push back against this. In order to do so, it’s useful to create strong learning and foster good habits.

If your dog has sensitised to things in the world around them, you may find the free Lighten Up e-book The Resilience Roadmap to be of use. Download your copy with the link.

There is also a webinar on implementing the Resilience Roadmap and one on creating powerful learning experiences for dogs that will also help with practical techniques.

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