Three concepts every dog guardian should know: habituation

I found a picture of my dog Heston this morning from his puppyhood eight years ago. When I got him, I had no idea what I was doing and it’s only thanks, first to YouTube and then to my own learning journey that I now know what I really needed.

I mean, I taught him tricks and he learned good manners. We managed chewing and teething. Somehow or other, we forged a solid bond. I did lots less well on teaching him life skills though. It’s probably why I think the three concepts I’m about to take you through are the most essential things a dog guardian should know. When you have these three tools in your bag, LOTS of other problems, from barking and chasing to pulling on the lead just evaporate. It especially helps you with the Big Two: fearfulness and aggression.

Take this morning. It was a DEFCON 1 kind of a morning. All the scary stuff that could happen did happen. All the exciting stuff that could happen did happen. We had packs of joggers, packs of (very noisy!) cyclists, a cow stick her head through a fence, a dog growling, barking and going mental behind a very flimsy gate iron fretwork gate, a hare dart out, two deer, several cats, some speedy cars and a man appear with a wheelbarrow and a hoe.

Oh, and then a bird scarer went off right next to us. I don’t know if you have these in your part of the world, but they are basically a big noisy gas-powered cannon that is louder than any gunfire I’ve ever encountered and we often walk near an army base, we live down the road from a rifle range and people hunt only metres from my garden.

Six years ago, this would have been a nightmare. I’d have got home and railed about the inconsiderate universe. As it is, Heston and I got through without going past DEFCON 5.

There are three fundamental skills that will help you cope at a DEFCON 5 level. These three life skills are the absolute foundation of coping with life. Whilst we may teach tricks and house manners, house training and food manners, if you understand the following three concepts, you are set for life. Those are habituation, which I’m going to discuss today, desensitisation, which will be the next post, and counterconditioning which will be the final one. I’m also going to write about flooding – when these go wrong.

Habituation then. Habituation is one of the simplest forms of learning. This one might rightly be called “getting used to” the environment.

Each second, we’re assaulted by hundreds of different sensory stimuli. It’s only when I stop and listen that I become aware of the bird noise outside, the gentle hum of the laptop, the fact that it is 9.53 and I have a lesson to teach, the taste of coffee that lingers in my mouth, the Skype icon that shows I have two messages, the small fly hovering about above my camera, the inordinate amount of wires on my table, the fact my glasses need cleaning… that’s just the beginning of the list!

It’s only when I stop and focus that I see and hear and smell and feel all the things that I have habituated to – the slight pain in my side from too much gardening, the pain in my foot from a small stone in my shoe, the sensation of my legs crossing each other. Those are just some of the very small number of tactile sensations I’m aware of. Besides tactile and pain receptors, our balance receptors and temperature receptors, visual receptors and sound receptors, taste receptors and scent receptors are just busy running like software in the background, processing all the information and deciding if it’s relevant or not relevant, worth paying attention to or not worth paying attention to, salient or not salient.

It’s only when I stop and consciously focus that I become aware of them. The brain can’t cope with all of this sensory stimuli. It’s overwhelming and it doesn’t know which to prioritise. Habituation, then, is the process by which repeated exposure to these sensory stimuli means that the brain learns to ignore them. Someone moving here from the city might notice the number of different birds – the black redstarts, the robins, the chaffinches, the blue tits, the crows, the magpies – but because they are part of my daily lifestyle, I ignore them. Likewise the cars passing. Now it’s only the particularly noticeable that get my attention – those who speed, those with noisy engines, tractors or rapid lorries. Flika is the same – she doesn’t notice the hundreds of cars that pass – or, at the least, she ignores them – yet she will bark at the occasional speeding lorry or noisy tractor. Habituation is the process by which we get used to neutral stimuli, blocking it out to focus only on the novel or the salient. Our initial response or noticing of the stimuli fades, like we don’t hear traffic or fridges or birdsong, or how we can go on a walk and not notice many millions of individual bits of sensory data, focusing only on a dropped pair of gloves or a flower that wasn’t there yesterday. I’m thinking right now of those two tiny plastic contact lenses I’m wearing and how it took me 48 hours to get used to the sensation of them in my eye, and to put them in, though now I don’t think about them at all, for example. I certainly can’t feel them anymore, even if I try to. That’s habituation.

Salience is vital for habituation: our brain is perpetually involved in the process of deciding salience – what is important, what is noticeable, what stands out. Were it not for that process of response fading, everything would remain salient and we would be overwhelmed. For Lidy, my newest canine arrival who’d spent three years in a shelter, she spent a few months acclimating, habituating, deciding on the salient and the not. Now she ignores the traffic, the children playing, the gas powered bird scarers, though she’s still trying to get to grips with some of the sounds of our daily life: the cows, the tractors and the heavy machinery. 

Habituation can be temporary: that’s particularly noticeable for me as we move back to hunting season. I tend to habituate to gunshot through the hunting season and then find after a break that I notice once again the sounds. The same is true following Covid – 19: at first the lack of air traffic was noticeable, then it was the new normal. When air traffic resumed, it was salient again: now it’s the new normal. 

Lack of habituation can temporarily be spontaneously recovered, just like it was in the examples with the planes and gunshot. What we’d become acclimated to, accustomed to, now becomes salient once more.

Most of the habituation we do with dogs is when they are very young. What many people call ‘socialisation’ is in fact habituation. We also need to allow time for our adult dogs to habituate if we move to new environments. This is one reason my canine behaviour consultation form asks if you’ve moved house, taken a holiday or had the dog in kennels recently. And we especially need to allow our newly acquired shelter dogs time to habituate to our homes and our lives. This is especially true if they come from a life much different than the one we’re offering, say for instance from country to town or from a foreign country.

Puppy habituation in itself can be fraught with problems. One thing that is particularly important is how, especially if we are trying to habituate a dog, we can end up sensitising them by accident, putting them into inescapable situations with things they cannot control or exposing them to things that set off innate behaviours like chasing or biting.

This is so true with puppies. Heston, my boy who’s now eight years old, he had a problem with cows when he was about 16 weeks. We’d been walking past them daily for 8 weeks or so, but around this second fear period, he’d started barking at them instead of having habituated to them. Thankfully this was only true of cows, as if he’d become sensitised to other aspects of our daily environment, it would be impossible to live, yet I’ve had clients whose puppies have become sensitised to traffic, to passers-by, to things they see on walks, to gunshots, to the television and so on. Just because you experience it daily does not mean you’ll get used to it.

We should be very mindful of the need for dogs to habituate when we move environment too – especially for dogs who arrive as adult rehomings and very especially for those who arrive from foreign countries. I can’t imagine the sensory overload of arriving in a country where the whole world smells different. We tend to only think of this for those very strong smells – for instance, Brazil to me will always smell of diesel engines and cars, and Belgium always smells of waffles, but imagine that experience for a dog – especially one that arrives from a rural part of a foreign country. It would be something akin to arriving into Akihabara, Tokyo’s high tech electrical district, or into Time Square when you’ve lived in rural Lincolnshire or Wisconsin all your life. Whilst it might be a bit of a shock to the system at first, you could imagine trying to sleep or live among all that ruckus. 

Let’s just have a brief detour to discuss socialisation: this is often used to mean habituation. We talk of socialising our puppies when what we mean is habituating them to noises, trains, planes, buses, cars, people, towns, joggers, cyclists. Socialisation is a subset of habituation, but it is distinct and relates only to experiences that are social, where dogs interact. Because we misunderstand the term socialisation, we focus on puppies interacting with hundreds of individuals, when habituation is actually the more essential skill in my opinion. Imagine growing up thinking you must greet, or that you can greet, every single person you come across. Yet we teach our puppies that this is the case. Habituating our dogs to other dogs and people that they don’t get to interact with is absolutely crucial. On Wednesday, Heston and I were at the vet, and surrounded by little dogs, who Heston loves. If he thought he had the right to interact with them all, who knows what trauma might have followed for those trembling littlies? I needed him to sit just as I do when I’m in a train station or restaurant, only paying attention and interacting to the people I’m with. That means habituating to others around us. Puppyhood ends up being 100% interaction, without preparing our dogs for a life where 99% of their experiences with people and animals won’t involve interaction at all. 

Finally, you hear some trainers talk of habituation as if it is inoculating the young dog against noises, scents and novel stimulation. It is, but remember inoculation is a one-off event – or a small series at best – inoculation not an on-going process, and habituation is not some giant tick list that we can just tick off ‘planes, trains, cars, joggers, cyclists, cows, horses’ and say ‘Done it!’ – it’s a process, not an event. Habituation can be lost. It’s not enough to say, “Well, gosh! I habituated him to horses at eight weeks. What the devil’s got into him?” when your six year old dog is freaked out by horses later. Same for me, if I stop wearing contact lenses. I’m sure if I have a long time without, it’ll feel just as strange as it does when I go back into long, tight trousers after the summer.

How best to habituate? Just the same as with desensitision and counterconditioning which I’ll explore in the next two posts. Start small and easy and slow. Give the dogs the ability to move away or to find a quiet space away from more intense smells and noises. Build up a secure base so they know they can come back to you and check in when they’re feeling unsafe or unsure, and avoid flooding – which I’ll explore in more detail in the final post. Make sure new experiences are safe, are positive, are brief and end on a good note. The worst thing we can do is overdo it.

It also helps to keep a bit of controlled novelty in your dog’s life. I like to do one or two novel walks every week, amply supported by good planning so nothing too dramatic occurs (like the time we ended up in the middle of a Venetian parade, I kid you not!) and treats in case I need to do some additional work on the go. Make sure as your dogs age that they don’t lose a grasp on things they were once habituated to. Sometimes I go and hang out near the vets or the park just because we’ve not done it for a while.

And as we come out of Covid-19 lockdown and society returns to normal levels of smell or sound, understand that your dogs might be finding it a little tricky to adapt. After all, if you’re anything like me, we’ve just had two months with no planes, few cars, no motorbikes, no hunters, few unfamiliar dogs or people on walks and very little change. Now the world is waking up again, it’s tough on our dogs who’d habituated to life. That’s also true for our presence as well: they’ve habituated to having us around. It’s important to introduce them to the new normal gradually and carefully without making it too much of a challenge. We started with a few trips to the supermarket and a bit of time hanging around shopping centre car parks at a distance, choosing some slightly busier walks and going out at times when we’re more likely to encounter the world. Avoid trigger stacking and keep it short, sweet and simple!

If you’re normally used to taking your dog everywhere and you’re moving back to life as normal, remember that where once they might have been used to markets or car boot sales, shops and car parks, crowds and scooters, pushbikes, prams, hoverboards and bicycles, they may not find it as easy to go back to the world at full strength straight away.

Take it easy on your dogs and allow them to take in the world once again. If you’ve got puppies, remember habituation is a process not an event. If you’ve rehomed an adult dog, remember it takes time for them to acclimatise. If you’re taking a dog from another country or environment, remember they may need longer to acclimitise too. And remember that moving house, going on holiday and family change aren’t just stressful for humans: they are for dogs too. Build a resilient dog and make sure you practise.

Next time, I’ll be looking at the second tool in your kit: desensitisation, exploring what it is, what it means and how you do it. Then we’ll move on to counterconditioning before finishing off with a quick look at the dangers of flooding.