three concepts every dog owner should know: desensitisation

So last time, we were looking at habituation: that ‘getting used to’ factor that helps animals and humans cope with the overwhelming number of external stimuli that assault us every day.

The more canny among you may have noticed that I included things that were inherently aversive or unpleasant, such as wearing contact lenses or getting used to loud noises. Habituation happens, as we notice so often in the allegory of frogs staying in water that gets increasingly hot until they are boiled, where that gradual creep of unpleasant sensation is not even noticed. We might get used to traffic smog or air traffic or traffic noise just as much as we might get used to birdsong and clean grass smells.

Technically, getting used to unpleasant stimuli has another name: desensitisation. This technique, sometimes known in human terms as exposure therapy, is with things that we are sensitive to, that we’ve already had a reaction to and either find very pleasant or very unpleasant. I sometimes hear desensitisation bandied about as if it’s habituation. It’s not. I’m a linguist. I revel in clean definitions and those loose applications of meaning make me itch.

Habituation, then, is getting used to neutral stuff. Not actually like my contact lenses, which were uncomfortable to start with, or like bird scarers. You see, even I don’t stick to those clean definitions. It’s hard. But habituation just happens with fairly innocuous stuff.

Desensitisation, on the other hand, is literally that: removing the sensation, making something non-salient or non-important.

Desensitisation is a careful, gradual, planned, systematic exposure to events.

Let me delineate those adjectives.





Desensitisation shouldn’t be an impromptu, “Oops, got ourselves surrounded by a Venetian Carnival!” if your dog is working on desensitising to people.

It moves from very low levels of exposure, either at distance or shortened duration (or both) until the dog is ready to cope with more.

Let me outline those bits too.

Very low levels of exposure: that means without provoking a fear or aggression or excitement response in your dog. They should notice the scary or exciting thing, but they should not be pulling on the lead or barking.

If they are, you’re too close.

And the other part of that statement is until the dog is ready to cope with more. Notice there that it’s the dog who chooses. Not you. The dog says they’re ready to move on. You can of course test this with things like engage-disengage games or look-dismiss games. I did it this morning. I saw Heston noticed shadows moving in the trees. I’d noticed them before. You know, hairless biped with dominant visual senses. But I saw him notice. We moved forward and the shadows moved and he looked again. Both times, he looked away and carried on sniffing or doing other stuff. He looked, he registered and he dismissed it as not that salient.

That’s the vital bit.

I do it with Flika too. She needs a bit more encouragement around cows and she’s not as able to cope with them as Heston is, so if I were asking myself “how much exposure do they need?” Heston could have moved closer, but Flika may have found it hard to work just where we were. It depends on the dog. Only your dog decides if they can’t cope at 100m or at 10m. And that depends on the subject. Knowing your dog is vital if you’re going to do the essential bit of desensitisation, which is planning it.

So one example for Heston when he was but a babe with his barking at cows, we went and did some work around 800m away from the cows. Gradually and systematically, we got closer and closer over repeated sessions, with repeated exposure until we were right alongside a number of frisky cows and they did not elicit a fear response. It was gradual. It was at his pace. It was boring.

In desensitisation, an emotional response should never be triggered. That’s the golden standard – the goal. Does it always go like that? No…. this is real life. But that’s the aim, for sure. You aren’t just putting the dog into a reactive state and letting them work themselves out of it; I wasn’t just standing there with Heston barking at the cows until he stopped. You should never see that emotional response. In order to do this, you need a very good understanding of your individual dog’s body language. Part of the problem with desensitisation is that many people understand the principles but they’re exposing their dog to far too much of the stuff They’re too close, or for too long. Most people totally get exposure therapy and have been doing it – just not at the dog’s pace and not in small enough doses at first.

Desensitisation should go at the dog’s pace. That too can be frustrating for clients. Yes, you may have to start work at 800m away. I’ve seen – and this embarrasses me about our profession – so-called professionals trying this at 2m from the scary or exciting stuff. The tendency to use punishers in these cases to suppress emotional responses is huge. We just want the dog to get over it and get used to it. It seems unfathomable that we might have to do this for a month or so and do a little practice every day or so until they’ve got it. We’ve got to put our own frustration aside and realise that suppressing behaviour is not the goal.

The most vital thing about desensitisation is that the dog is relaxed. You are pairing a state of relaxation up with a conditioned trigger. That’s to say, the dog has learned that the cars, cuckoo clocks, cyclists, wheelie bins and so on are scary, and you’re working at a level where the dog is relaxed. You’re then going to do hundreds of exposures to the triggers, gradually and systematically lowering one stimulus gradient or another. That’s all. You are probably not using food. You are definitely not reinforcing anything. Pairing relaxation up with small doses of the trigger is all you are doing – on a carefully controlled programme. You’re not just winging it and hoping for the best. You don’t need a clicker or a marker word or anything like ‘rewards’. You don’t need to speak. You’re just being – relaxed being – around the stuff.

Why don’t I just stick a choke chain on or a prong or a shock collar, or tell my dog to pack it in? Why don’t I just say, “No! No!” and tell them off?

Because even if it worked, punishment simply suppresses behaviour.

That means that if it’s something really important, it’ll just pop back out when I’m not there to punish or ‘correct’ it. Dogs are smart like that. No human, no punishment. And you can use a shock collar to try and overcome that, but you better hope that the collar never fails, which they do. You also have to know that if I’m faced with two competing consequences, I’m going to choose the fun one, hands down. You better hope your punishment is bad enough and strong enough to put the fear of God in me to suppress that behaviour permanently. If it’s something I’m afraid of and behaving aggressively to or fearfully around, punishers just contribute to the awfulness of the experience. This is where punishment fails. I know so very many dogs with predatory urges whose owners have been recommended shock collars only to find that if the dog gets out of range or escapes, they end up doing exactly what they wanted to all along. The behaviour was just waiting for the moment to get the chance. I’ve had a number of clients who arrive with dogs who’ve killed cats or other dogs, poultry, wildlife or even farm animals and they’ve all tried punishers in the past. Punishment and ‘interruptors’ don’t remove the urge; they just suppress the behaviour.

Another reason punishment (even things like saying “no!”) is not effective is because desensitisation is a process that isn’t about consequences. Punishment is all about consequences. It doesn’t deal with the relationship between the scary or fun thing and the behaviour that follows. If you want to consciously uncouple those behaviours, to steal a phrase from Ms. Paltrow, then you need Pavlovian extinction, not Skinnerian punishers. Punishment has no effect on emotional reactions other than suppressing the outward expression of those emotions. If you tell me off every time I make a run towards a patisserie, then you might suppress the outward expression of my longing and love, but I still feel it. If you tell me off every time I shriek when a spider crawls on me, I might stop shrieking, but it won’t stop being unpleasant. Punishment just leads us to suppress behaviour and think the situation is dealt with. It isn’t. It may, if you get out of the habit long enough, become extinct behaviour if you use punishers, but there’s no guarantee. Plus, we habituate to punishers, so you have to use stronger and stronger ones. You know my feelings on punishers already – from water sprays to citronella collars right up to the heavy artillery – so I won’t labour the point. I’m just not happy living with the uncertainty over whether a behaviour is suppressed or extinct. Those are two very big differences behind the absence of a behaviour. Suppressed behaviours are way more likely to emerge once the punishment stops. I can’t live with that doubt.

Using desensitisation properly and effectively means the dog isn’t practising the behaviour and that connection is phased out. It’s slow but miles more effective. For instance, should Heston get out and go wandering, I’m mostly sure – as sure as I can be – that he could go past or even through a field of sheep or cows without a problem. Lidy? Not a chance. Guess which one came with a history of punishers? It’s not a trust exercise and I always keep my dogs on leads around things they might chase or have chased in the past even if they don’t seem to want to now and if they’re very fearful, I’m going to be doing a lot of desensitisation gradually, systematically, carefully and with full planning so that they won’t feel the need to be aggressive or run away.

It can be really tempting to want to skip gradual and planned desensitisation that works at the dog’s pace. I mean it 100% works but it is not a magic pill. Desensitisation is not a quick fix. It can’t be achieved in a day. The main problem when it’s not working is that you’re too close, going too long or your dog wasn’t calm enough in the first place.

All you’re doing is scaling up exposures little by little, day by day, time by time, until your dog has had loads and loads of exposure without reacting. I try and plan in at least 50 of those opportunities. 50 exposures is not a lot really.

Desensitisation is perfect for chasing behaviours around cows, cars, cats, sheep, horses, cyclists, joggers and so on. It’s not perfect if your dog cannot disengage at any distance. I have one of those. We do other things alongside it, one of which you’ll read about in the next post, but if your dog can look away and dismiss the thing from 500m or so, then that may be all you need. Some dogs, once they get it, they get it. That does happen. Flika’s had 14 years of practice before she arrived and she now copes with most cars and knows what we do instead. She can cope with cows too, which is something I never believed would happen.

Your setups to do this are crucial. When using desensitisation with dogs who react to other dogs, we do 5 minute blasts at long distance where the dogs are only in sight for a second, maximum and then a 30 or 40 second break. Brief exposure, long distances, short durations. Those build up to long exposure, short distances and long durations. Eventually, you should reach a point where the stuff you notice just are part of the furniture like I did this morning when walking within a metre of a cow field and a cow stuck her head through.

A word of caution: ALL behaviour can be ‘spontaneously recovered’ meaning it can re-emerge when you thought it was long since dead. This is as true of behaviours trained without punishment as it is with it. You need to keep up exposure from time to time and make sure you do it in a careful and planned way to gauge reactions otherwise one day, that chasing or fearful or aggressive behaviour may pop right out again. That’s fine. You’re not starting from scratch. You’ve done this before and you’ve got this. Don’t change methods and think you’ll try something new. What you desensitised before you can do again in the same way.

Exposure therapy – or desensitisation for humans – is the single most effective way to overcome fears and phobias. There’s zero reason it shouldn’t be the most effective way with animals too. It’s also used with PTSD in virtual reality scenarios and with obsessive-compulsive disorders. It’s highly effective when it’s handled properly.

And just a note before we move on to counterconditioning in the next post… these two things are not the same although they are often paired up. Classic exposure therapy is simply that: exposure. If you’re using food or reinforcers, clicks or marker words, that’s great, and you may be desensitising as well, but desensitisation in itself is not about food or alternative reinforcement. It’s just about normalising stuff that your dog was sensitive to before.

You can see why this is such an effective tool for pet guardians to know: once you have this in the bag and you know how to do it (key: it’s gradual!) then you’ve got your own tool to work with your own problems as and when they emerge.