Dog fear: sensitisation and reactivity thresholds

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague, explaining sensitisation and reactivity thresholds.

Privacy: Essential details have been changed in the story, to avoid the owners being recognized
Written in: June 2018.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague


Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Scared dog: push him in at the deep end?

I had the most touching Chihuahua appointment the other week. Three months ago, Cindy and Eddy had rescue Little Sam from terrible neglect: he’d lived in a backyard the first five years of his life! He was five years old by the time he started to get a life. And it wasn’t much of a life as he was scared of everything except for Cindy (his – female – owner).

From day one, he crawled up to Cindy’s neck, and stayed glued there every chance he got. Cindy’s neck had become his only safe haven.

He was scared of everything: cars, passersby, noises and, particularly strongly, men. He was even scared of Eddy, and would scamper each time Eddy even moved. Not exactly practical, considering Eddy spent most of his time with the dog whilst Cindy worked.

Cindy and Eddy got advice from the man-on-the-street (who’s had dogs for 25 years, you understand): force Sam to face his fear and he’ll get used to it. The result was the thoroughly traumatised dog I saw the other day.

So what was wrong with this approach?

When a dog is too scared to ‘get used to it’

The reason Average Joe’s dog does eventually get used to things, and not Little Sam, is that Sam is faaaar too far gone. His fear is way too strong for forced exposure to do him any good.

He considers Eddy to be a mortal danger. No way is he going to think back to the countless times he ‘survived’ Eddy without a scratch and conclude it wasn’t so bad. He is more likely to chalk it down to another lucky escape.

Imagine that you’re scared of spiders and that your mom, in her infinite wisdom, tosses a bunch of spiders in your bed every night so you can ‘get used to them’. In all likelihood, your arachnophobia would get much worse AND you would also start being scared of your bed sheets and the sound of steps on the stairs. Worst of all, you’d also start distrusting your mom.

Fearful dogs: avoidance is best at first

Most dogs do get used to something they’re not too crazy about after they experience it a lot. But this only works with mild stresses, not with a full-blown fear.

What we do for phobic dogs is avoid any exposure to the stressor for a few weeks if we can. That can be tricky, as most of us don’t live in a lab and Eddy wasn’t inclined to go live in the caravan for a few weeks – as I’d even (jokingly) suggested during the consult.

The trick then, was about keeping Little Sam ‘below threshold’ in Eddy’s presence. The dog isn’t scared of Eddy. He is scared of Eddy approaching him, facing him, bending over him, cornering him, etc. So we listed all of Eddy’s actions that the dog was scared of, and found management solutions to avoid exposing the dog to them.

A scared dog: two thresholds

A fear will get worse not only under (1) the reactivity threshold (the dog has an overt reaction to the trigger, like scampering, barking or biting); but also under  the (2) sensitivity threshold (the dog finds the situation unpleasant enough that he stores it as negative for future reference. Result? The dog is primed to react negatively at the next exposure).

To stop the downward spiral of fear, not only did Eddy need to avoid situations which led the dog to an outright panic, but also situations that led him to sensitize.

The sweet spot is a level of exposure at which the dog WILL get used to it. It is the intensity zone at which the dog notices, but does not mind (with thanks to Temple Grandin for this pithy turn of phrase).

We do want the dog to see Eddy – there is little point in distracting him all the time, or avoiding the situation forever – but we want him to do so at such a distance or intensity that he doesn’t re-classifies the exposure as neutral, if not downright positive.

We tested Little Sam’s reaction and made a list of Eddy’s movements and actions that triggered a flight reaction (reactivity threshold breach) and even the ones that triggered a stress reaction (sensitivity threshold).

A dog drowning in fear

If you want to visualize it, check out Grisha Stewart’s Stress and Support Scale (cannot be shared on this post for copyright reasons). Her analogy is brilliant.

  • Green zone: The dog is on the beach: the dog does not notice the normally fear-eliciting trigger, or
  • Blue zone: The dog’s toes are in the water: he notices, but does not mind.
  • Brown & orange zone: The dog is treading deeper waters, but his head is still out of the water. It becomes hard to get through to the dog, and the dog does not appear capable of processing information clearly and calmly. The dog is hypervigilant.
  • Red zone: The dog is ‘drowning’. He is frantically trying to get out of the situation, come what may. This could involve flight or fight attempts.

Anything from the brown zone and beyond, and you are breaching the sensitivity threshold (making it worse with each exposure).

Anything from the red zone onward, and you are breaching the reactivity threshold (the dog is barking, lunging, scampering, etc.).

What if Eddy tried to give food to the dog?

This idea is akin to a technique we call counter-conditioning (giving the dog food in a situation he hates, in the hope of changing the dog’s mind about the situation).

Eddy had tried this a lot.

Result? The dog would get so freaked out by Eddy just bending over, that he’d hide under the cupboard for hours afterwards.

Even if Little Sam was a foodie, he would only (occasionally) accept food from Eddy whilst stretching himself as much as possible, ready to flee at Eddy’s slightest movement. This sort of hypervigilant experience is not helping the dog get used to it. He is still right in the sensitisation zone, and such exposures are liable to make the fear worse, not better.

What now?

After a few days of just this – no training, no fancy protocol, nothing. Just avoidance – the owners have got back to me to confirm that the dog is getting bolder and bolder every day!

Of course it won’t be enough to entirely fix this issue, and we will probably need some further behaviour therapy, but at least the dog has stopped getting worse. We have broken the vicious cycle of sensitisation.

Illustration credits

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