I want to talk today, about something I feel people don’t hear very often and it is a major part of dog training, specially when you are dealing with rescue dogs.
Not that you will not need it if you get a puppy.
Another weird term? Really?
Yeah, sorry, we need to get a bit technical before I can make myself clear.
Desensitisation is the process of gradually exposing your dog to triggers, in order to alleviate or even completely neutralise an unwanted behavior.
It is mostly used to solve aggression or fear problems and it is highly, I mean, highly effective when used right.
I will start with some use possibilities just to give you and idea of how this simple technique can make your life better:
It can be used to train…
- dog reactive dogs
- people reactive dogs
- fear of sounds
- fear of home appliances
- fear of places
… Just to name a few, but, basically, if your dog reacts badly to anything, they will need to be desensitised.
What is it then?
Desensitisation, like I said, is the process of exposing your dog, in a controlled manner, to some sort of stimuli that triggers them to react badly, until that reaction doesn’t exist anymore.
If you have a dog that reacts badly to other dogs, for example, sometimes people’s first and most natural instinct is to prevent their dog from ever encountering other dogs.
That decision, however able to avoid the immediate stress of an unpleasant encounter, will surely cause your dog to keep reacting that way every time another dog is present. Which, let’s be honest, you can’t avoid forever!
So complete lack of exposure doesn’t quite work in your favour.
Another very common and also incorrect approach is to over expose the dog to the trigger. So, you have a fearful dog and decide to throw them at the dog park with another twenty off lead dogs playing and wrestling like crazy so they…
“Get used to it”
That’s not going to work either and you’re likely to get a traumatised dog that will never want to play with other dogs again.
So you must, yes, expose the dog… only, the exposure must be…
Controlled exposure is exactly what it sounds like.
You have to arrange for your dog to meet their trigger in an environment and circumstance in which it doesn’t yet pose a threat.
(Geez, you’re speaking tongues again!)
I will give you some examples to make it easier.
When dogs react, there is always something that can be measured. It can be the distance or the time of exposure, but that’s varies from one dog to another and you are going to have to find how it works for yours.
“My dog starts barking and lunging when they see another dog ten meters away” -Cool, so you are going to start training 10.5 meters away.
“My dog bites after they say hello to another dog for 4 seconds” – You are going to allow your pup to greet four three seconds tops.
Is it starting to make sense?
Good feelings only!
When dogs react badly to something, it is always because they have a negative feeling towards that trigger. It is mostly fear, even the most aggressive reactions come from fear.
So when you are exposing your dog to their trigger, you don’t want them to be afraid. You want them to think “Oh, well, that wasn’t scary at all, maybe I don’t need to react”.
And how do you know whether your dog is scared? By watching their body language.
If your dog is barking, lunging, squealing, tail tucked under, shaking, that means the trigger has been activated, they are already in protection mode (whether it is passive or active) and they are not learning anything good.
But if they are far enough, or exposed for short enough that they don’t feel the need to react, then they are being desensitised!
Distance is Key
When working with an aggressive or fearful dog, you really want to keep you distance.
You want to let your dog set the pace and show you when they are ready to move in closer, because they are feeling more confident.
A great thermometer to know whether your dog is calm is by testing their responsiveness and to do that you can use the attention game (click the link if you haven’t read that post), to check if your dog stills looks at you when you call.
That is a great sign that the dog is relaxing! Specially if they can look at you voluntarily, because stressed dogs tend to focus on the source of the stress.
And as they relax, in the presence of what once was a trigger to them, they start trusting a bit more. In time, they can trust completely!
One thing that is important to say regarding the process of desensitisation is that (going back to control, sorry) the environment needs to be controlled so, for example…
You decide to desensitise your dog reactive dog at an off lead dog park… everything is going wonderful, until and extra friendly golden retriever spots you and your dog and decide you look too lonely and need his company…
Dog runs towards your dog, your dog goes ballistic, because they are not ready and your desensitisation training will take a big hit!
So please make sure that, when you do this – which you will do for around five minutes per day, only – the circumstances remain ideal throughout the whole session.
On lead dog parks and dogs behind fences are my favourites!
Learn it, get creative! Use it for everything
The ones that follow me, know that I have a recently adopted dog that had some issues.
Mostly she was reactive to dogs and people. I have been working very hard on that, so she has greatly improved in the last few months, to the point where I can easily let her off lead at a dog park.
However, her lead manners are a nightmare!! So, now that the main problems are under control, my next challenge will be trying to desensitise her from dogs, people, buses, cars, bikes (lol) when she is on lead.
In order to do that, I will use this process combined with something called counter conditioning, which I will talk about in my next post!
Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have any doubts.