Desensitising or Flooding?
Is it desensitising or is it over-exposure?
Ellie, her siblings and other Tibetan Terriers were picked up from a breeder in a dreadful state of neglect, with matted fur and no socialisation. They had no exposure to life outside the shed where they were kept.
Lucky Ellie was re-homed to my clients three months ago. She is now nine months old. She lives with a calmer and slightly older Tibetan called Bailie.
Her family took her on holiday a couple of months later and it was a nightmare.
Ellie became increasingly terrified of traffic and people – particularly children. From the beginning of each day one scary new thing after another would have added to her accumulating stress as, with the best of loving intentions, they included the previously unsocialised small dog in their holiday activities.
They have actually come a long way in three months in some respects and are already doing many of the things I usually suggest. However they admit that her reactivity to people, traffic and any new environment is getting worse.
I feel there are a couple of things being done by Ellie’s humans, in the mistaken belief that they are helping her and being kind, that they can now do differently.
For hours Ellie occupies what the lady calls her ‘sentry point’ on the back of the sofa, watching the ‘scary’ things go past their house. It won’t have taken long for her to get the idea that it was her barking which was chasing those enemies, who kept on moving past, away.
Instead of this regular exposure acclimatising and desensitising her to new things as they thought, it is doing the opposite.
Each barking bout will be adding to her already rapidly rising stress levels. Daily she is repatedly rehearsing the very behaviour towards people and traffic that they are trying to change.
The other thing that is actually making her worse is a common belief that desensitising a dog to the things she fears – cars, bicycles, children, plastic bags, anywhere new – involves active exposure by way of as many encounters as possible all at once in order to ‘get her used’ to them.
Over-exposure has the reverse effect to desensitising.
Over-exposure is flooding and the very opposite to desensitising.
Controlling Ellie’s environment is the way to go here. They have already removed Ellie’s access to her ‘sentinel’ point and will be helping both dogs as soon as they start to bark at anything (the neighbours will be thankful).
Then, very slowly, they will begin the desensitising and counter-conditioning she needs in order to see those things she fears in a different light whilst getting used to them gradually.
Before they can take her on any more outings beyond their gate and past traffic, past people and into shops, they must surely first get her to feel better about the world immediately outside their gate. On a long, loose lead she should be given a choice whilst they work on proper desensitisation.
She will herself let them know what she’s ready to do. Only when she feels safe enough to herself choose to venture out should they make their way further afield, very gradually.
‘Proper’ outings for now will need to be by car to transport her and Bailie directly to somewhere ‘safe’ and open.
This will take multiples sessions. The greater the number of very short desensitisation outings they do, the more progress they should make.
It’s best if they can work on things one at a time. Take fear of plastic bags – something easy to control unlike a child running up from nowhere. First a bag can be at a distance that Ellie finds okay and she can be given food each time she looks at it. She can also be rewarded with food or by increasing distance each time she deliberately looks away from it (making a ‘good’ decision).
They can put Ellie indoors, remove the plastic bag, lace with food the ground where the bag had been so the area is associated with good stuff. Then let Ellie back out to forage where the bag had been. Next, with Ellie back out of the way, they can replace the bag – and so on.
One thing at a time, we can work out appropriate procedures. Desensitising to children can be worked on in the same sort of way at a comfortable distance from a school playground at playtime.
Considering her deprived beginnings, Ellie could be a lot worse and in many respects they have come a long way. It’s the fearfulness of things and people new to her that has increased.
With the best of intentions, they are doing things back to front. Here is a very good article with a couple of great short videos about the sort of time and patience needed for desensitising and counter-conditioning a dog to something that really scares it.
With slow and gradual exposure whilst avoiding pushing Ellie over her comfort threshold they will build up her trust. She should eventually be able to go on holiday with them again and enjoy it this time.