When desensitisation with your dog goes wrong

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

When desensitisation with your dog goes wrong

February 20, 2024 Uncategorised 0

Desensitisation can be a really powerful tool we can use with our dogs. Ideally, we will be using it preventatively so that our dogs get used to things that can sometimes be unpleasant. We can also use it as a treatment process when things go wrong.

For example, a young puppy can be desensitised gradually to absence. Dogs are social animal. They can find it hard when young to get used to being separated from the family group. Being alone can be very tough for any social animal, especially when young. To desensitise them, we would simply help them get used to our absence very gradually over a period of time. This way, they get used to things rather than sensitising.

We do this very often with things that are restrictive such as leads or muzzles. We can also do it with experiences like car trips and grooming.

Lots of the things we do with young puppies helps them get used to things that will happen regularly in their life. Because we know that grooming can be frustrating and sometimes painful, taking it easy and introducing it gradually can help. It’s the same for young children.

We can also use it as a treatment process if our dogs have become sensitive or fearful to any of these things. Although we cannot desensitise them to things that are truly unpleasant, we can help them learn that being alone need not be so bad, for example. Going in the car can be lots of fun. Grooming can be really relaxing and pleasant.

But it can go very wrong.

When we rush

It’s human nature to want to go quickly. Instead of taking a few weeks to help our rescue dog find their place in the home, we decide that they should learn to sleep in the kitchen or conservatory. Because it’s human nature to rush things, instead of taking time to build up to this experience, we decide they should be used to it after one or two nights.

It can be the same with puppies.

In fact, it’s the same with any of these experiences. Even things like comfy harnesses can be unpleasant for our dogs. If we rush, we run the risk that they’ll either feel fearful or anxious and that we’ll make things ten times worse. It’s easily done. Plenty of dogs would really benefit from a vet trip that was three or four times as long for example, but the pressures of time make this tough.

We also rush because we don’t plan ahead. Instead of working with our dog to help them get used to the sound of fireworks, we leave it to the week before a big firework display, for example.

When we’ve got a deadline, it often leads us to rush. Then we end up moving too quickly. As a result our dog sensitises instead of getting used to things.

When we don’t pay attention to our dog

Because we rely on leads and enclosed spaces, we often forget that our dog has little choice in what happens to them. For example, we may be trying to help them get used to the car. Instead of giving them space to make their own decisions, we put the lead on them or lift them in and close the door. Although we probably don’t think of this as an issue, we may miss all the signs our dog is giving us that they don’t feel comfortable.

It’s easy to spot a dog who is shaking and panicking. It’s much less easy to see that they are mildly uncomfortable. Perhaps they turn their head away from us or pin their ears back. We might not pay this much attention because our dog doesn’t seem all that distressed.

The trouble is that it’s impossible for our dog to reassess the situation when they feel anxious. If they are aroused or if they are upset, they cannot downgrade the situation. Instead of helping them learn that it’s not so scary, we’re just teaching them that they have no control.

It’s vital that we give our dogs space to make their choices.

It’s vital we pay attention to our dog if they don’t have much space to move away.

When we are haphazard

Humans are remarkably inventive. We’re also very impetuous and spur-of-the-moment. Instead of sitting down and writing out a clear plan with gradual steps, we decide that today would be a really good day to do things.

One of the most successful programmes on the market for separation-related behaviour in dogs uses desensitisation. Why it’s so successful is because it has very, very clear goals. The algorithm is clearly set out to tell you how much to do next time. It’s a simple step-by-step programme. Why does it work so well? Because it stops people making impetuous decisions that our dog seems fine, so why not triple the amount of time we leave them?

When we’re haphazard with training plans, it’s easy to flood our dog and make things even worse. We also end up leaving things to the last moment rather than planning things incrementally.

Desensitisation works best when we are thorough and methodical.

Human beings are unfortunately not very good at that… unless our goals have been mapped out and broken down by an app, that is!

Desensitisation works well when it is planned and carefully thought through. It’s easy to go wrong with it when we haven’t broken down all the steps and separate goals.

When we don’t monitor progress

Another reason apps can be so useful for desensitisation is that they help us look back and see how far we’ve come. Because desensitisation is a gradual process that may take a handful of sessions over a couple of weeks right up to something much more involved over months, it can be difficult to see progress.

When we can’t see progress, we often give up really quickly.

It seems like nothing is working.

I remember having to do a desensitisation protocol to absence with one of my older dogs, Flika. She had an extreme phobia over being closed in. Having spent the last three years being locked in the grounds of a warehouse to ‘patrol’ at night probably didn’t help.

So when she arrived with me, even building up to me going out of the room caused her to panic.

It took her a few weeks to get used to being in a room with open doors and then to build up to being in a room if I closed the door.

Because it’s easy to get disheartened, we forget how much progress we’ve made. We then think that what we are doing isn’t working and it causes us to give up.

Keeping track also helps us see how far we’ve come. Being able to look back and see those gains is hugely important.

When we don’t seek professional guidance

If you get to a month or two of doing things on your own and you’re not seeing progress, get a professional on board.

Your first stop may be a behaviour consultant. They can help you gather information and understand if your dog is struggling with anxiety. If your dog has strong fears or phobias, or if they panic, then you may need pharmaceutical support. For reasons I’ll never truly understand, many people can be highly resistant to medication for dogs when it comes to emotion. We’re happy to give them heart pills and epilepsy medication, painkillers or other medications for their body, but we draw the line at medications for emotional challenges.

Of course, it will be the vet who prescribes anti-anxiety medication if it is needed. A behaviour consultant can help you gather your observations and make sure you don’t miss anything so that your vet is fully informed in making their decision.

Medication is not the only time we might seek out professional help.

A behaviour consultant or trainer who uses desensitisation regularly can often give us hints and tips so we’ll see much more rapid progress. Usually, my clients have already tried something that looked like desensitisation, but they just need help doing it more efficiently.

Sometimes, they’re just lacking in how to carry out the plan.

When we don’t set ourselves up for success

Desensitisation works best when our dogs are calm. It works best if we teach them how to relax first.

Despite this, many people still try to carry out a desensitisation programme when their dog is fizzy and busy, or when they have no skills to relax.

Our dogs don’t always know how to relax, or they don’t feel safe enough to do so. It sounds kind of silly that our dogs might not know how to relax. If they don’t have the skills in the first place, however, they’re not going to be able to do it around things that scare them.

For example, imagine you’re scared of crowds. A therapist takes you and your yoga mat to a busy town centre and then asks you to relax. You try your best but if you’ve got strong habits of anxiety, add that into the uncertain situation and it makes it almost inevitable that you’ll fail.

Setting our dogs up for success means making sure the world is predictable. It also means making sure the world is safe. This is often not very easy, and we can do it best by using safety cues. We can also teach them to relax and build up strong habits.

When we don’t reduce the intensity of triggers

Reducing the intensity of triggers is also very important. We can do that in a variety of ways, but it’s always helpful to remember that the responsibility lies with us. If we try to insist that our dog is calm, we’ll often fail.

We know, for example, that if our dog is going to get used to grooming, then they’ll need to be calm. We may already have planned out our steps. Our plan may be consistent plan ever. But if we’re still using the same spiky brush that causes our dog to recoil, we can’t simply expect our dogs to just calm down. They’re unlikely to be able to remain calm.

Reducing the intensity of the trigger might mean things like starting with a paintbrush. It could mean starting with a soft bristle brush or a silicone glove.

We can also make our lives much easier by building in consent behaviours. When our dogs have the choice, while it sounds strange, they usually choose to do things when we ask. The difference between being forced to submit and choosing to tolerate something mildly unpleasant often makes a real difference for our dogs.

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.