Some Sense About Desense

Tips and techniques for desensitizing your dog to new things

Brittney Frazier, Found Chicago Boarding and Training Center

With Chicago-like spring weather creeping in and the neighborhood parks becoming more crowded, you may have noticed your dog’s growing sensitivity to things they haven’t encountered in months: bikes, children, or even other dogs, for example. This sensitivity can turn into fear and even reactivity if the dog’s discomfort is not addressed immediately.

Forcing a dog to interact with something they are not comfortable with can have catastrophical consequences on a dog’s mental and emotional state, however ignoring the problem is just as detrimental and can lead to a dog becoming “stuck” in one state for too long, weakening your chances of ever conquering the dog’s fear.

It’s important to remember to be patient whenever attempting to desensitize a dog to a specific situation. The full process from start to finish can sometimes take years depending on how severe the dog’s reaction to the stimulus in question. In the case of a shelter or rescued dog, we may wonder exactly why our new friend is so fearful of something or how this fear came to be. We may even jump to conclusions of the most terrible ways our dogs could have encountered this fear in past experiences. However, the best thing you can do for your dog is to stay as confident and anxiety-free about the situation as possible. The more emotion we add to the scenario, the more worried the dog will become. We need to be our dog’s rock-and-steady during these tough moments.

While excess worry is not helpful, there are several things you can do in order to be productive about your dog’s sensitivity. In working through some difficult scenarios, you’ll hopefully find your relationship with your dog strengthened and a renewed trust in you during other situations. Try some of our tips and tricks below when desensitizing your dog to new things:

  • FOOD and other rewards: Of course a scary situation will be more tolerable with some of your dog’s favorite treats or toys involved. However, make sure you are using the reward effectively. If you try luring a well-fed, barely food motivated dog with some dry kibble, you will most likely find your way to immediate frustration. Instead, motivate your dog with an empty stomach and some very smelly and alluring treats towards the object your dog fears. Make sure to never treat the dog before they have made a positive step or interaction with the object. Even the smallest of steps are good steps! Create a low expectation for the dog (like glancing at the object/dog/child without a reaction) and then build from there.
  • Exercise to balance the anxiety: An easy way to help alleviate fear and discomfort outside is channeling the dog’s focus on something else, making it too difficult for the dog to obsess over their fear. Perhaps your reactive dog is fearful of bikes. While slowly walking past a bike on a solitary trail may feel overwhelming, your dog may be much better at running past bikes at a further distance, allowing you to build up from there. If you work at it, the same dog may be running next to you on your bike in no time! Also, it may be helpful to work on any kind of desensitization after some heavy exercise in order to create a more balanced situation for the dog. It is difficult for a dog to be tense and anxious when they are exhausted from a fun day at the park.
  • Structure to create better understanding: There are times a dog is very reactive or unsure about a situation because they are unaware of how they are expected to react. Create an expectation of what you would want your dog to do, such as a structured “sit” or “down” command. Enforcing the command regardless of the scenario, along with heavy reward when the dog is calm, helps the dog to understand there is no danger in what they are uncomfortable with.
  • Practice makes perfect: As with anything in dog training, it will always be beneficial to work on a dog’s anxiety or fear multiple times a week. The more the dog can be exposed to what they are afraid of in a positive way, the better the association the dog can build with it. Find what works best to encourage your dog’s confidence and do what it takes to make small steps towards a goal, rather than bombarding a dog with a lot of stress less often, which may actually cause the dog to regress.
  • Assess how you are feeling as a leader: As much as we empathize with our dogs when they are sick, scared, or injured, we need to stay strong as leaders when we are attempting to teach our dog something. If our dog senses that we are just as nervous as they are about conquering a sensitive area, it will only elongate, or even exacerbate, the feeling the dog is having. As much as it may pain you to see your dog stressed, working to fix the issue with a positive and structured strategy is the best way to take leadership over the problem so your dog doesn’t have to. Remember that we are our dogs’ advocates and our jobs as their owner is to ensure we tackle ever obstacle with teamwork.

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