Same as with us humans, dogs do have rich emotional lives and usually react instantly when they sense emotions of people or other dogs around them. As every dog is a unique individual and as different as we are, each reacts when exposed to certain situations in their own particular way. While some dogs don’t even lift their head when the garbage truck passes by, others freak out like an Alien Spaceship had just landed in front of their yard. It might be time to desensitise your dog.
If the energy which your dog perceives is positive, it might lead to an excessive reaction, for example an outburst of joy when you finally come home from work and they greet you or meet a beloved friend during a walk. The dog gets overexcited and is not able to control itself, which might result in it jumping up and down or running around in circles out of pure joy. All those behaviours might sometimes be annoying but they are relatively harmless and just add to the goofiness in character of your furry partner.
But what happens a dog picks up underlying emotions which are outright negative, like fear or anxiety? Depending on the personality and genetic setup of your dog, this might trigger an instant aggressive reaction, which could lead to a biting attack, causing serious injuries. Unresolved past traumata and bad experiences in a dog’s past are often the reason why a dog chooses to attack and fight instead of just running away from a fearful situation. In childhood, if the mother dog was nervous or fearful, there is a high possibility that the same temperament will also be predominant in her puppies.
Every dog reacts differently towards certain situations or stimuli. Dogs might show a reaction for a variety of reasons: it could be the terrifying sound of the vacuum cleaner, a visit to the vet’s office, clipping of its nails or just the smell of another dog. Some dogs even react when you try to take a picture of them with your phone or camera. Strangers or visitors to your home wearing a strange hat or funky sunglasses, the sound of knocking or ringing of your doorbell can be a trigger to send your dog into berserk mode. Cars, bicycles, skateboards or scooters are fast, unpredictable and ultra scary looking in the eyes of some dogs, ringing their alarm bells!
As long as your dogs reaction towards unfamiliar objects, scary noises or joggers passing by in front of your gate remains at a safe level and you are able to calm it down, lead it away or do anything to de-escalate the situation, it’s all fine. A bit of barking now and then is perfectly normal and healthy for every dog.
But what if certain situations or stimuli cause your dog such an intense distress that pushes it to enter a state of aggressive fearful rage, in which it gets completely out of control and no matter what you do, it will not any longer listen to you? Then your dog clearly has stepped over what can be called the threshold, has left the safe green zone and has become a danger to you, to other humans and animals around you and don’t forget: also to itself!
As a responsible dog owner it is imperative that you have to begin working with your dog to first find out the reason why a certain stimulus triggers an extreme aggressive response and work with it to change its behaviour. The goal is that your dog learns to constantly stay below this threshold in the safe zone.
Desensitisation and Counter-conditioning
In general there are two approaches to help your dog to change it’s behaviour: Gradual desensitisation and counter-conditioning. To maximise the training effect usually those two methods are used together so that low-intensity stimuli are paired with high-level rewards.
By using the gradual desensitisation method you expose your dog carefully, slowly and in a controlled way to a troubling situation over time by teaching it to tolerate threatening sounds, sights, smells or any other triggering stimuli, until your dog no longer goes berserk and looses its cool.
In counter-conditioning you try to recondition your dog’s negative reaction towards a stimulus by associating that trigger with something positive. The goal is to change Fluffy’s response from a fearful aggressive one to a much more positive, until the old conditioning is overwritten.
Please be aware that desensitising a dog with a severe aggressive reaction rooted in fear is definitely not resolved in a few training sessions. It might take many weeks or even months to gradually help your dog to overcome its extreme fear and teach it to change its reaction to a given stimulus. In the long run this will help your dog immensely to reach a state of balance, happiness and health and definitely will improve your relationship with your dog. Your neighbours will also be thankful if your dog doesn’t bark excessively just because somebody walks down your street.
The Ladder of Aggression
I found an illustration which shows in a very simple way the changes in your dog’s body language, which helps you to evaluate and understand the level of reaction of your dog to a given trigger. Green and yellow are healthy reactions and don’t need any intervention from your side. But once your dog crosses the threshold and enters the orange and red zone, this is where things are getting more and more dangerous.
The Safe Green Zone
If your dogs remains well below the threshold, you can see that it’s body is loose and relaxed, the mouth remains open. The dog might be excited with it’s tail at half-mast. If you call its name, it will quickly focus on you and happily take a treat or allow you to lead it away from a certain potential negative situation.
Once your dog is getting closer in reaching the threshold, you see it’s behaviour changing. Your dog might appear kind of „worried“, begins to look around and searches for an escape route. It might whine a bit or show calming signs like licking or yawning in an attempt to de-escalate the situation.
Red – Entering Berserk Mode
Dogs which crossed the threshold and are ready to explode don’t even bother to look at you when you call their name nor take a treat from you. Their body has frozen, they refuse to move or move in slow motion with their focus on the stimulus, another dog or anything which causes the distress. The dog shows signs of major stress like trembling, drooling or tries to hide. It paces, barks, lunges and whines. The hair on the back of its neck are standing up and its is pulling on the leash, either to run away quickly or rush towards the trigger, ready for an attack.
The dog is sending out threatening signs like intense growling, snaps in the air, snarls and definitely will bite anything which comes in front of its teeth. As the dog has completely lost control in this moment, it might also bite you when you try to pull it away from the trigger, which often is another dog, similarly scared and also close to enter the Red Zone.
For desensitisation and counter-conditioning programs to work, it is necessary that you have already achieved a good control of your pet and conditioned it to know that, when its training time, there are a lot of yummy super-treats waiting for it. If your dog doesn’t yet trust that you are in control, it’s too early to begin the desensitisation training. During training it is recommended to keep your dog on a leash to ensure that you are always also physically in control and can redirect your dog if it gets too close to the threshold and move it further away from the trigger.
Always remember to plan each session carefully and keep it short, so that your dog doesn’t loose its concentration and focus. Exposing your favourite friend to a distressing situation is a very intense experience for any dog. Make sure that your dog knows and feels that you have its back while facing danger. Your dog relies on your assertive calmness and total absence of anxiety, frustration or any other negative emotion to overcome its fear. Turn on your superhero mode and switch the emotion lever to happy to show your dog that facing a fear-inducing situation will turn step by step into a great experience with its human alpha, strengthening your bond of mutual trust and respect.
Desensitise your dog!
While every situation or stimulus which triggers an unwanted reaction in your dog is different, but there is an underlying principle which you can apply when helping your dog to tolerate anything which causes distresses.
The theory behind this method is simple: Exposing your dog in a controlled way and gradually over time to an extremely low level of certain stimuli or situations without triggering a negative physiological response, which means without getting your dog to freak out. As your furry friend becomes less reactive to the stimulus, it is gradually getting used through exposure to more intense levels of the stimulus. Desensitisation helps your dog to keep calm in scary situations and not longer react ultra-sensitive to those triggers.
Use your intuition and try to understand your dog’s point of view regarding a certain situation. For us the sight of a bicycle riding by is nothing to panic, but for a dog it might look like a shiny metal monster with dangerous spinning huge eyes ready to breath fire.
Based on bad past experiences and traumata, dogs usually have a very specific trigger, which causes them to go beyond the threshold. It might be a certain hat someone is wearing or a big sized overcoat, or even the smell of pizza, if maybe an evil pizza delivery guy hit it when it was young. Start the desensitising training by introducing your dog to known family members, whom you might ask to ride a bicycle, jump on a skateboard or dress in a funny hat or any other fear evoking attire.
If your dogs thinks every visitor to your home is a potential dangerous thief, outfit your friends with a lot of super tasty treats which they are happy to toss to your dog once it has already made some progress and manages to remain below the threshold level as you approach closer.
Allowing your dog to sniff out a bicycle, skateboard or the turned off vacuum cleaner, sitting with your beside it and then place treats on it, will help scared Fluffy to understand that this monster is actually a friend. Once your dog is comfortable in the presence of your vacuum cleaner, use your mobile phone to play on a low volume the beautiful sound of a vacuum cleaner doing its job. Then reward your dog with treats and lots of praise if it remains calm and focussed.
Pro Tip: You can find a lot of sounds for almost everything on Youtube
The Way of Counter-Conditioning
Counter-Conditioning is basically to change your dog’s negative emotions about a certain situation or experience into a positive one. By using positive enforcements and rewards, it is possible to flip your dog’s perception. For example rather than perceiving another dog or the mailman as scary and threatening, your dog will begin to see them as a chance to earn a nice treat or reward.
In order to counter-condition your dog, you’ll have to get your dog’s favourite treats ready. Alternatively, you could use small strips of chicken, beef, or liverwurst. I always use oven dried pieces of chicken work great as irresistible treats to get your dog to achieve anything.
For instance, if your dog is triggered by children, sit with your leashed dog in a safe distance with the playing children in view. When your dog is calm, either before it can start panicking or after the panicking ends, give it a small, yummy snack and a lot of calming praise. „Good boy!“
Always remember that this method only works if you give your dog a treat only when it is calm; rewarding dogs while they’re still showing a strong fear reaction will actually train and reward them to be scared!
The Key to Success
But as a loving dog parent, knowing your furry friend better than anyone else, you might say that those two methods are impossible in reality, as in the moment your dog spots another dog, it is going instantly into berserk mode and then forget about listening to anything you are trying to teach.
That’s entirely true: once your dog has crossed the threshold into the red danger zone, it is in a place beyond control.
The key to applying any of those two methods successfully is to always trying to keep your dog below the threshold. You have to find the right distance to a given trigger where your dog is not feeling scared or in panic and thus doesn’t respond negatively.
If your dog is reacting strongly in the presence of another dog, move it a bit further away and calm it down, so that it can be relaxed knowing you are beside it and is receptive to the emotions you are sending out.
Only when your dog stays calm in a certain distance from another dog or anything that usually causes it to go completely mad, you move progressively closer but in very tiny baby-steps. Think about moving an arm lengths closer a day!
Don’t get disheartened or loose your patience. Despite your best intentions it will happen a lot of times that your dog gets too close to the stimulus and starts to react in a negative, uncontrolled way. In this situation it is important that you back up a few steps to a level where it is no longer fearful, using a trained command like „Let’s go!“ or leading it away with a gentle tug on the leash.
It is crucial that you never let a session end on a negative note. Even your dog showed a strong negative reaction and you had to back up, let some time pass to allow your dog to forget it’s outburst, then have it sit down and wait until it’s calm before rewarding it generously for spending quality time together with you during your training session. If you just leave a situation after your dog had a negative response, it might even increase your dog’s anxiety and reinforce the negative behaviour as your training session has ended when your dog was fearful or overly excited.
Don’t ever give up, persistence is the key! One day your dog’s monsters will disappear and leave your best friend in a much higher state of balance and lot less fear.