How to Help Your Reactive Dog Using Dog Desensitization
Step 16 of 25 in the Dogly Reactivity Channel
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

What is dog desensitization and how does it work?

With a management plan and counter-conditioning in place now, you're ready to add desensitization to help keep your dog's emotional response positive when your reactive dog notices a trigger.

If you haven't already, I recommend going back and checking out the counter-conditioning guide first.


What is dog desensitization?

Desensitization is a dog training process we use to expose a reactive dog to a trigger in small, manageable increments that don't cause reactions.

In other words, desensitization in dog training is exposure while being kept comfortably under threshold.

By doing this, you show your reactive dog the trigger is not a big deal and doesn't need a negative emotional response.

It's important to remember you are not trying to get your dog to like the trigger. You are only trying to change your dog's emotional response from fear or anxiety to something more neutral or even happy when your dog notices the trigger.

Desensitization can be a very effective way to help fearful dogs learn to cope with their triggers in a more positive way.

In a way, they are unlearning their reaction because they are not being exposed to the trigger in a way causing them to react and sending them over threshold, flooding the brain with adrenaline and cortisol. With time and consistency, the association of the trigger with those stressful feelings dissipates to a more positive emotional response.

Give me an example

Dog owners often ask me for examples to help differentiate desensitization from counter-conditioning (and to see how they can complement each other).

Let's say your dog is afraid of men in hats - the first step might be to have a man stand at a distance wearing a hat while your dog is eating dinner. The next step might be to move closer while your dog is eating. And so on, until your dog is comfortable with a man in a hat being right next to him or her while eating dinner.

One of my favorite real life examples...

My best real life example is with my reactive guy, Muchacho, and cows. I had no idea he was reactive to cows until we once went on a hike where we had to pass some and he lost his ever-loving mind. I had no real investment in his being able to be around cows, so it wasn’t something I actively worked on with him.

However, not long after, I began my doggy daycare venture on my dad’s farm. My dad did not have cows (so still not an issue) but his neighbor did. Those cows were in a pasture pretty far away from our daycare area, so never close enough to cause an issue for the dogs. We did occasionally take walks out to the back pasture, and we’d get a bit closer to the cows, but not enough to be problematic. In fact, I never thought much about the cows at all.

How I desensitized my dog accidentally

We started frequenting a hiking trail where there were often cows. They were usually far in the distance, but occasionally they would wander into the trail and we’d have to walk through them! The first time this happened, I was blown away. Mooch was certainly excited about the cows, but he didn’t make a peep. His response to them was SO mild compared to that walk years earlier that I was pretty flabbergasted.

But once I reflected on it, I realized I had inadvertently desensitized him to cows. Since his first reaction, I had never asked him to be closer to a cow than he was comfortable. So they faded into the background for him and he learned that cows were a thing that sometimes were in the environment but which were not particularly relevant. Boom. Desensitization.


Deliberate desensitization requires a little patience

In all honesty, deliberate, systematic desensitization is quite a bit harder than the accidental kind that happened with the cows. Why? Because we are impatient creatures.

We want to close that threshold fast, we want to push our dogs and see how close we can get to the trigger. Which can push a reactive dog over threshold and make things much slower.

Remember, we are going for gradual exposure to build your dog's emotional responses with confidence and comfort that lasts!

Try this

  • Choose one of your dog's triggers that allows you to predict the where and when it's likely to happen for practice.

  • If your dog reacts to other dogs when he or she is on leash, for example, plan walks where you will encounter that scenario from a very safe distance (in terms of your dog's threshold) and with only one or a few dogs likely on the route. (We have a dog in our neighborhood who is often out on a gated front porch with his human... perfect practice subject!)

  • Practice your own swivel-head skills on your walks - you want to be 360-alert to any dogs so you can see them before your dog to control distance.

  • Make sure your distance from the other dog is well within your dog's comfort zone and, if needed, do whatever you have to do to make it so - always with a cool, no-big-deal attitude setting the tone for your dog.*

  • While you're at a safe distance away from the other dog (other side of the street, a block away, whatever is right for your dog), make sure your dog notices the other dog. It's key that your dog sees the other dog to register the fact that other dogs are present and all is still well.

  • Gradually shorten the distance between your dog and the trigger over time and subsequent walks according to your dog's comfort signals. No rush - you always want to stay well below your dog's threshold!

*If a dog appears out of nowhere with no warning, add counter-conditioning with high-value treats and quickly, calmly add distance with a u-turn, a fun run down a side street, or whatever gets your dog where he or she is comfortable.

Pro tip: watch for less obvious signs of stress

Remember that even if your dog isn’t growling, barking, or lunging, your outwardly quiet dog can still be under stress and past threshold.

Tense muscles, not taking food, taking food with a hard mouth, soft whining, sniffing to “change the subject” - these are all signs of stress, too!

So treat it as such! Take note and give your dog some space. Work often, but in short increments so you can make progress without pushing too hard or fast.

Why knowing subtle stress signs matters

Your desensitization plan is not going to work if you’re exposing your reactive dog to the trigger at an intensity that's causing stress. Missing these more subtle signs of stress is one of the most common mistakes dog parents make in their desensitization training sessions.

Remember, the key to successful desensitization is to gradually expose your dog to the "scary thing" at a level that doesn't elicit negative emotions. This will allow your dog to build positive associations with the trigger and decrease their negative feelings over time.

Keep an eye out for the subtle signs of stress and adjust your training session accordingly to set your dog up for success. With patience, persistence, and positive reinforcement, you can help your reactive dog overcome his/her fears and live a happier, more comfortable life. Don't be discouraged by setbacks or slow progress - every small victory is a step in the right direction!


What to do if your dog goes over threshold

Being mindful of your dog's emotional state is vital. It's important to stay under the reactivity threshold during training sessions, but it's also important to know what to do if your dog does go over threshold.

  • Remove your dog from the triggering situation immediately and safely.

  • Take note of where your dog was when he or she went over threshold - this will help you determine his or her comfort zone for future training sessions.

  • Give your dog some space and time to calm down before trying again with a different approach.

  • Remember that progress is not always linear and there may be setbacks along the way. Consistency, patience, and understanding will go a long way in helping your dog overcome reactivity. Keep at it!

How counter-conditioning & desensitization work together for best results

That’s why pairing your desensitization plan with counter-conditioning is so helpful in dog training. The counter-conditioning part of the equation helps you create a positive association, not just neutral as desensitization would be without it’s food-toting partner. The counter-conditioning process also gives you some good information - because if your dog stops taking food, you know you're over threshold, and if your dog is taking food too hard, you also know you need more space.


Exposure does not inherently mean desensitization

It’s also important to point out that exposure does not inherently mean desensitization and in fact sensitization is a thing and can happen quite easily.

Sensitization is the opposite of desensitization (obviously) and is the process by which exposure to a trigger creates a stronger and stronger negative response.

Give me an example

A common example of this would be a particular dog on your normal walking route that sets your dog off. The first time you walk by a house with this dog, you and your dog don’t see it coming - it may startle you both and cause a bit of a reaction, and then you quickly move on.

But over time, your dog may begin to tense up sooner and sooner, anticipating the other dog’s appearance and getting ready for the big confrontation. Sensitization is one of the reasons why it’s so important to be mindful of stress levels, and why using food and adding counter-conditioning into the equation can be so helpful.

If you just expose your dog to the trigger over and over without helping your dog learn to associate it with good things, sensitization is likely to happen.

That’s why you want to be sure not to put your dog in a position where he or she is feeling anxious, stressed, or scared - you want to help your dog learn that the trigger means good things are happening, not bad.

Now you know the basics of desensitization and counter-conditioning!

These two tools can be used separately or together to help your dog feel better about the things that stress him or her. With a little bit of patience and a lot of high-value treats in your training, you can help your dog become more confident and relaxed in any situation!

Remember to always pay attention to your dog's body language and adjust accordingly, as every dog is different. With the right approach and plenty of positive reinforcement, you can help your dog become a more peaceful and happy companion.


Next up in the Reactivity Channel on Dogly

Now that you know how to use counter-conditioning and desensitization to help your dog around triggers, continue in the Reactivity Channel for everything you need for your dog from how to use enrichment to the many ways to alleviate leash reactivity.

If you have any questions on reactivity and your dog, just ask us in our Community Discussion where you'll get answers from out community of Dogly Training Advocates.

And if you need more personalized guidance, get started in your dog's training plan here.

Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw

Training Advocate
Dogly loves Tressa because she sees training as a journey to better canine communication.

Tressa guides you

Anxiety - Kids & Dogs - Manners - Bite Prevention - Reactivity - Walking

Tressa is certified

Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner - & Family Paws Parent Educator