Helping Reactive Dogs: Desensitization
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

Alright, with our management plan in place we are now ready to get to the “meat and potatoes” of helping our reactive dogs - counterconditioning and desensitization. These two concepts go together like peas and carrots, but we’re going to break them each down, and separate them into their own articles, since it’s a bit much. If you haven't already, I recommend going back and checking out the Counterconditioning article first.


Desensitization

Desensitization (DS) is the process by which we expose an animal to a trigger in small, manageable increments that do not elicit reactions. In other words, exposure while being kept comfortably under threshold. By doing this, our dog’s learn that the trigger is not a big deal. In a way, they are unlearning their reaction because they are not being exposed to the trigger in such a way that sends them over threshold and floods their brain with adrenaline and cortisol. With time and consistency, the association of the trigger with those stressful feelings dissipates. 


My best real life example for this 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 everloving 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. 


Until quite some time later; 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 previous that I was pretty flabbergasted. But once I reflected on it, I realized that 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. 


In all honesty, deliberate DS 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 them over threshold and make things much slower! 


Remember that even if your dog isn’t growling/barking/lunging, they can still be under stress. Tense muscles, not taking food, taking food with a hard mouth, whining, sniffing to “change the subject” - these are all signs of stress, too! Your DS plan is not going to work if you’re exposing your dog to the trigger at an intensity which is causing stress. 


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


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. 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 CC into the equation can be so helpful.