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4 Desensitisation

Updated: Mar 13

The trouble with desensitisation when there are many issues

Desensitisation is a slow and sometimes painstaking process, for advanced cases each issue can take some years to diminish, that's a long time in the life of a dog and requires commitment and weighing off against the general quality of life offered.

For Hedgehog there were so many issues and to keep him from being permanently stressed and over-loaded, if not further traumatised, only one trigger could be worked on at a time. For example to work on his fear of traffic we had to find somewhere to take him where we could just focus on cars and Hedgehog's reaction to those, without the risk of running into cats, dogs, children, men, bicycles etc. Like a person who has a fear of heights, spiders and snakes, you can only confront one phobia at a time and you can't desensitise someone to spiders while there are snakes crawling around their ankles.

So for dogs with multiple issues it requires a lot of creativity to find ways to work on one area and patience to wait with working on the others. It's a question of prioritising which to work on first and can truthfully take years. In the majority of cases it is effective and viable, but in order to desensitise a dog to let's say cars, you need to introduce him carefully to cars in the least intimidating way possible, such as one isolated stationary car and then perhaps a slow moving car in an empty car park. Always keeping the dog below the threshold of fear and anxiety to avoid worsening his experience, while ensuring he is aware of what he is encountering.

A good example of desensitisation is having a dog who is afraid of fireworks listen to a firework CD, unobtrusively in the background at home, while he is relaxed and then gradually increasing the volume over as much time as it takes to do that without ever causing the dog any anxiety or discomfort as that would be counter-productive.

You can only confront one phobia at a time, just as you can't desensitise someone to spiders while there are snakes crawling around their ankles.

Hedgehog was afraid of fireworks too, and any noises at all, and it was hard to find ways to even get him safely to places from their home above the busy shopping centre, to work on the desensitisation, because it involved walking there and he would already be totally over his stress threshold before starting. He was a large dog and their home was tiny and cramped and he circled the tiny room like a caged tiger.

On rare occasions re-homing is a better option for a dog, unless the owner can find a more remote and less stressful place to live, it can be better to send an inner-city dog that suffers from many phobias to a new life where he simply won't have to be confronted by what he perceives as the endless horrors of daily life, simply because desensitising a dog to a great many issues can take years, which is comparable to decades in a human lifetime. Hedgehog's owner made a move herself to a remote farm, where he could run free and lie outside in the fresh, open air without negative encounters. From here she was able to continue working on issues that remained a discomfort for him, but from a new baseline state of calm, which he had previously never known.