Wow! Why intensity matters for reactive dogs

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Wow! Why intensity matters for reactive dogs

April 30, 2024 Uncategorised 0

Life would be a whole lot easier for our sensitive and responsive dogs if they could just get used to the world around them.

If they could pay less mind to the other dogs in the world…

Or if they could simply adjust to the people they see on walks…

If the tiniest little noise outside didn’t cause all kinds of effects.

During the last firework season in the UK, I wondered why so little noise could have such a profound effect on my dog. Although there had been one or two firework displays closer to home, she was responding to fireworks that were at least three miles away. How is it that she could have sensitised to so little noise?

The world is not created equal

The world around us is filled with sensations. Most of these, we ignore. We stop paying attention to the things that don’t matter to us, for example. Right now, when I stop to listen, I can hear all kinds of sounds. There’s the sound of the boiler for one. Below that, there’s the sound of the fridge humming. Outside, there are several noisy birds. A distant car has gone past. The sound of my fingers on the keys is another noise in the world around me.

We often pay attention to things that are relevant to our goals. For example, when I am hungry, I’m more likely to notice the smell of food. I might notice adverts for food more easily.

But there is one goal that trumps all others: safety.

Sensations that are indicative of potential threat have the ability to cut right through everything else.

They grab our attention. Loud noises, sudden movements, unexpected contact… all of these are ways that the world can cut through our daydreams. They have the power to interrupt whatever else we’re doing and change our behaviour, momentarily at least.

Where things are uncertain, this can also be the case. If we’re not sure if or when a threat might occur, it can put us on edge. This stokes our arousal and can cause us to feel anxious.

But it’s not just for threat…

If particular things in the world are highly rewarding, pleasurable or exciting, we can also sensitise to those rewards too. Not only that, we can sensitise to the things that predict them too.

Although it’s true that most of the things an individual is likely to sensitise to are potentially threatening, it’s not always the case.

Thinking of our dogs, they can of course sensitise to the bad things in life. Loud noises are a good example of this. Any loud noise like a car backfiring, a car door slamming, a tractor rumbling past, thunder, gunshot or fireworks taps into the fact our body is primed to respond to these as potential threat. Loud and sudden noises have the ability to cut through to our attention. This is true even if we’re asleep. The same is true for our dogs.

Lots of things can be threatening to a dog. The odour of a rival on home territory is one. The appearance of a stranger on the horizon is another. Sudden movement may also be a potential threat.

Although not every dog will sensitise to these things, it’s not uncommon or unusual if they do.

The same is true for rewards, however. That could be seeing a potential new friend on the horizon or seeing the ducks in the park.


Usually, consistent and repeated exposure to low or mild levels of things causes us to get used to those potential triggers. Sometimes, that may be temporary, lasting thirty minutes or so. Other times, that can be weeks. In fact, if it happens early in life during sensitive developmental periods, it may even last permanently.

It’s normal for our dogs to get used to things. One of my neighbours’ dogs barks so often that my dog has completely habituated to his barking. It doesn’t even wake her up anymore if she’s napping.

Habituation helps us tune out things that are not significant to us, even if they predict danger. A dog barking in the neighbourhood might normally be the sign of an intruder. In this case, the dog barks so often that it’s not helpful to listen out for him.

This process usually occurs when we are not on alert or in emotionally intense states. Since my dog is mostly relaxed in the home, she’s habituated to it even though it’s just on the other side of a wall.

However this is not always the case.

Another dog in the neighbourhood has sensitised to this persistent barking. Maybe that dog was a little anxious the first time he heard the barking. Even if he’d simply been playing a game, it could have made him more alert than usual.

The role of sensory intensity

Under normal circumstances, if our dogs are relaxed and feeling fine, then the other factor that could influence whether they get used to things or not is the intensity of the scary or rewarding stuff. The closer it is, the more likely they are to sensitise. The more intense it is, the more likely they are to sensitise.

Take thunder, for example.

If our young dog is relaxed during their first few encounters with a thunderstorm, and if the storm is relatively far away, it’s more likely our dog will habituate to it. But if our dog is already anxious or highly excited and there is a huge rumble of thunder just overhead, they’re much more likely to sensitise than they are to get used to things.

The same is true for the good stuff in life. Imagine the dog who sensitised to pigeons in the park. Maybe the dog was excited to be out on a walk. They were already highly alert. City and urban pigeons often have very short flight distance. Instead of flying away when scary stuff is far away, they tend to fly away when the scary stuff is up close. All that noise and flapping when our dog is in close proximity to the pigeons is much more likely to cause sensitisation.

If it’s also really rewarding and it taps in to things dogs would find pleasurable, like chasing birds, then it’s all the more likely to cause sensitisation.

Sensory intensity

It’s not just how close a thing is. Proximity is not the only factor behind sensitisation. Our dogs may get more sensitive because something is very intense. For example, it could be how fast a car is going that causes our dog to sensitise to it. Maybe it’s very exciting to have things moving really close to you. Maybe it’s terrifying.

It doesn’t really matter if it’s good or bad: it has the same effect. It makes us more likely to respond next time.

For example, a car may have whizzed past at top speed right next to our dog. If this was highly exciting for our dog, it makes them more responsive next time. If that experience was terrifying, then our dog may also become more responsive next time too.

Intensity can be about the speed of movement or the variation. For example, the dog that sensitises to pigeons flapping may notice the sudden variation from stillness and pecking through to flapping and flying.

It can also be about the volume. Every morning, I walk with my dog under a tree that acts as a rookery. The noise can be pretty intense when they’re disturbed. The sudden noise could definitely be a factor in sensitisation for some dogs.

Proximity, volume, size and speed are not the only factors that alter intensity. It can also relate to distinctiveness or novelty.

Coping with sensitisation

On the whole, sensitisation is a temporary process. Give our dogs time to re-set and we may find that they are much less sensitive in future.

You may notice this through prolonged exposure. For my dog, the longer firework season continues, the more she responds to the noise over time. But give her a break for a few months and her response decreases again.

However, once our dogs have sensitised, it can make it very easy for them to sensitise again to exactly the same stimulus. For instance, one of my dogs was very sensitive to other dogs in the neighbourhood. Although he got used to them in our first home, when we moved house, this habituation faded and it took a while for him to recover.

This is why, for instance, our dogs can sensitise to absence and then find it very easy to fall back into those habits once again even if we’ve followed a really good programme to help them get used to being alone.

It also makes it very easy for them to sensitise to other things that are very similar. Generalisation can be a problem for our dogs where they sensitise to something like gunshot and then sensitise to fireworks, loud mechanical noises or even the log on the fireplace popping when hot.

Working under threshold

Most sensible programmes for dogs to help them get used to things focus on working ‘under threshold’. What this means is working with three factors: low arousal, low emotional intensity and low stimulus intensity.

Low arousal simply means only helping our dogs get used to the world when they are relatively calm. Trying to help our fizzy dog get used to other fizzy dogs in the park is destined to make things worse because the risks that they will sensitise even further are very high.

It’s also important to make sure our dogs aren’t very excited or afraid. For instance, if we want our dogs to get used to other dogs in the dog park, having lots of high octane fun probably won’t help much. All that adrenaline will stoke the fire to make them even more sensitive the next time they see an unfamiliar face.

And if we wat to help our sound sensitive dogs get used to the sound of overhead planes, sitting under the flight path of some high speed, low flying military planes probably won’t help them get used to the noise.

It’s for this reason dog trainers and behaviour consultants usually work with distance and short durations. The more we increase the distance from a trigger, the lower its intensity. That makes it more likely our dogs will eventually habituate to things.

In practice

This type of exposure-based treatment is called desensitisation. It’s called that for the simple reason that it helps our dogs densensitise to the world around them if they’ve become a little sensitive.

This is often done using a graduated plan that starts with the least intense stimulus and working up to the highest. Through careful, controlled exposures working up to more intense situations, we can often help dogs get over fears or excitement.

For example, one dog I am working with was very reactive to other dogs particularly if they were noisy or energetic. We started with short exposures at a distance to slower dogs who were much less interested in him. Over time, we worked our way up to faster dogs off lead moving very quickly and making a lot of noise.

This kind of desensitisation can work best if paired up with other activities. You can always follow this free guide to the Lighten Up Resilience Roadmap. It works for both excited & frustrated dogs as well as dogs who are anxious or fearful. There is also a 5h webinar to accompany it, explaining things in practice.

Sometimes it helps to give our dogs something else to do rather than noticing everything going on in the world. At other times, our dogs may benefit from support in learning to relax around triggers. We should also rule out health factors and generalised distress.