Helping A Dog With A Fear Of Sounds

Firstly, it is always preferential to seek a face to face consultation with a qualified dog trainer of behaviourist when dealing with sound sensitivity. A tailored programme, along with individual guidance will often result in a better outcome for you and your dog. If at any time your dog’s behaviour or fear is becoming worse. Stop, and seek the guidance of a professional trainer or behaviourist.

Introduction

Here we will show you three different programmes which are designed to reduce your dog’s sensitivity to noises. Each of the programmes uses the same sound recording; only the procedures that you will use will be different. The programme you select will depend on how sensitive and fearful your dog is to certain types of noise.

It is useful to understand what happens mentally and physically to a dog with fear of a noise. However you can skip to Selecting A Programme if you wish?


What Is A Fear Response?

Your dog takes in information about the world around him using the five senses that nature has provided him with. These are his sense of touch, sense of taste, sense of smell as well as his eyesight and his ability to detect sounds. How well each one of a dog’s senses operates will be dependent on several factors such as the breed, the abilities of parents, the dog’s early exposure to certain types of stimulatory experiences and the opportunities that he may have had to practice and develop his senses. If a dog shows a fear response there are several physiological changes that occur, quite naturally, in order to prepare the dog for either a flight (run away) response or sometimes a fight (aggressive) response.

In an emergency, the dog’s body is primed in an instant for either attack or defence. Extra amounts of hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol) are excreted from the adrenal medulla. This is a physiological process that the body undergoes when the brain perceives a stimulus as a possible danger. Warning messages are then flashed to the deep part of the brain (the hypothalamus) which co-ordinates all of the activities of the body that are not within the dog’s conscious control. It then affects the sympathetic nervous system which controls involuntary action of the glands, organs and other parts of the body. The pituitary gland then kicks in which governs the hormone or endocrine system. Thyroxin is also released by the thyroid which helps to stimulate the metabolic rate of the body. Other hormones that are released include testosterone and endorphins, which are natural painkillers. The amount of adrenaline released will be dependent on how life threatening the stimuli is perceived as being. The changes are summarised below.

  1. The senses become super alert. Touch, sight, and hearing are all increased.
  2. Blood is diverted away from the skin and non-essential areas (pupils become dilated) and channelled to vital organs and muscles.
  3. The liver releases its store of blood sugars to send to muscles for quick energy. Red blood cells are rushed into the bloodstream from the reserves in the spleen.
  4. Breathing becomes faster and deeper as the need to take in more oxygen increases. There is a widening of the bronchioles of the lung to achieve this. Oxygen is needed by the muscles to help transform sugar into energy. Faster breathing also helps to remove excess carbon dioxide.
  5. The heart beats faster with larger beats to transform the oxygen carrying the blood to the organs and muscles that need it. As a result of this blood pressure rises.
  6. To conserve energy there is a shutdown of non-essential operations such as digestion. Bodily secretions also stop which results in the mouth feeling dry.
  7. Sweating increases from the pads to cool down the skin, which becomes hot due to the body’s exertions.
  8. The bladder and bowel may evacuate any excess loads that they are carrying.
  9. The muscles of the limbs become more tensely contracted and less liable of fatigue. Tense muscles give off lactic acid into the bloodstream, which has the effect of increasing anxiety.
  10. More insulin is produced to break up the body’s sugars for instant energy.
  11. Pain killing endorphins are released to effectively kill or suppress pain responses.

These physiological changes prepare the body for the physical exertions necessary for either fight or flight. If the level of anxious arousal is low then the cerebral cortex still retains inhibition of the hypothalamus and the dog can review options and, if appropriate, learning can take place. If the level of anxious arousal is high then the cortex sends messages to the hypothalamus, releasing it from inhibitory control and stimulating it into action.

So, if the emotional response from a stimulus is intense the hypothalamus takes over and the sudden release of a strong surge of adrenaline prepares the body for instant action. Although this is necessary for the real fight of flight situations this intense process can interfere with new learning and/or choice of the correct and safe options. It is important to understand that this process so that the fearful dog is never put into a situation where he experiences more fear than he can cope with. It also shows how the process of desensitisation works as the dog should only ever be subjected to the lowest dosage of the fear that he can cope with so that very little adrenaline is produced.


Selecting A Programme

For you to be able to select an appropriate programme for your dog’s needs you first have to assess your dog’s level of fear when exposed to certain types of sound.

Answering the following questions should give you an indication which programme will suit your needs.


A score between 5 and 7 indicates a programme of Habituation would likely be appropriate.

A score between 8 and 14 indicates a programme of Desensitisation would likely be appropriate.

15 or more indicates a programme of Counter Conditioning would likely be appropriate.


Habituation

This simply means letting the dog get used to the sounds that they are (or may be) somewhat worried about. This is done by giving them repeated exposures to the sounds until they treat them as if they are of no consequence.

Application Example

Use this programme to get your dog used to the sounds they will encounter at a training class or where dogs are competing by using the sound of dogs barking or the sound of a dog show.

You can also use this programme to get your dog used to the sound of a new baby in your home or the sound of visiting children playing. It is also useful as an aid to socialisation for a young puppy prior to the age of nine weeks to accustom it to the sound of the big outside world into which he will be taken. It would be unwise to take a five-week-old puppy out into the outside world, but using a recording you can take a bit of the big wide world into where the puppy is!

The Treatment

Firstly, you must make or buy or a recording of the sounds you wish to reduce your dog’s sensitivity to. For example, several tracks from the links below which you can set to play on a loop –

Affiliate links

To start off you should select an environment where you dog feels comfortable such as your dog’s favourite room in your house. Also choose a time of day when you are going to be present for at least four hours. Then you should prepare the sound or sounds ready to play on repeat on a stereo or mp3 player, etc. that most closely match the sound or sounds that your dog is worried about.

Select a volume that is close to the volume that he will normally hear this sound at. Now play the recording and ignore your dog completely. Do not make a fuss of him or give any rewards during the time that the tape is playing. Simply go about your normal daily routine as though nothing special is happening. If your dog seems worried about the sounds at first you should not give any indication that you are acknowledging his behaviour but rather treat him and the sounds as if they are no big deal. Once started the sound recording should be used as continuously as possible, 24 hours each day for several days would be ideal. It is important that the tape is not switched off for at least four hours on the first exposure so that your dog has the chance to treat it as ‘background’ in nature. Each additional exposure to the sound tape should last for at least two hours.

Once your dog is taking no notice of the sounds on the tape, then move the player to other locations, such as your garden, a friend’s house, dog club, during car travel etc., so that your dog gets used to the sounds and will be unlikely to react to them in any given situation.


Desensitisation

This means sloooowly letting the dog get used to the sounds that they are worried about at the moment by giving very small and repeated exposures to these sounds until they treat them as if they are of no consequence.

Application Example

Use this programme to remove a dog’s fear of sounds like gunfire, fireworks, helicopters, other dogs, vacuum cleaners, road traffic, aircraft, hot air balloons etc.

It may also be used to remove sound triggers that spark off behaviours such as dog/dog aggression, car chasing, excessive barking etc.

By repeatedly exposing a dog to increasing levels of any sound that causes it to react by barking, chasing, aggressive or anxious arousal you will remove these sounds as triggers for the associated behaviour.

For example –

If your dog barks whenever it hears someone knocking on your door. By repeatedly exposing your dog to the sound of someone knocking on your front door starting at a very low level and gradually increasing; this sound will become totally unreliable as an indicator to your dog that there is a visitor present and so his barking response should eventually become virtually non-existent.

The Treatment

Firstly, you must make or buy or a recording of the sounds you wish to reduce your dog’s sensitivity to. For example, several tracks from the links below which you can set to play on a loop –

Affiliate links

To start off you should select an environment where your dog feels comfortable such as your dog’s favourite room in your house. Also choose a time of day when you are going to be present for at least four hours. Then you should prepare the sound or sounds ready to play on repeat on a stereo or mp3 player, etc. that most closely match the sound or sounds that your dog is worried about.

Prepare to play a recording of the appropriate sound on a loop/repeat with the volume down to its very lowest setting. Sit down and relax before switching on the recording – there should be no sound coming out of the speakers as the volume is switched all the way off!

Now put one hand on the volume control and watch your dog closely. Slowly raise the volume until you get the faintest recognition from your dog. This recognition usually takes the form of the dog tilting his head on one side or pricking up one or both ears. When you get this indication that your dog has heard the sound then leave the volume set at this level for at least three days. Leave the tape playing for as long as possible – 24 hours would be ideal but if this is not possible then at the first exposure the time must be in excess of four hours. The more the tape is played over the first three days the better it works.

When you reach the point after three or more days when your dog is no longer taking any notice of the sounds then slowly start to raise the volume on a daily basis until you have the volume closely resembling the level that your dog would normally hear it in the environment.

The next stage is to take the tape player to lots of different locations. This exposes your dog to the sounds in more natural environments. You will notice that no rewards have been offered at all during the programme. This is because you are trying to remove any response, positive or negative.

When your dog seems fine in the house and gives no fear response when the tape is played then it is time to change the programme slightly.  Put the player upstairs, speakers down in the room above where the dog is so that the sounds now come from the fabric of the house instead of the two (or more) speakers that the dog can see.  When you do this you might have to drop the sound level for a day or two. 

The final step is to put the tape player or speakers just outside the window so that your dog hears the sounds coming from the outside environment.  Once again you may have to drop the sound level when you first do this.  It is important for the duration of the programme that you do not react if your dog shows any signs of fear to these or similar noises.  If you start to comfort and reassure your dog when it shows signs of fear you will simply strengthen his fear response as showing fear now becomes rewarding.  Treat the sounds as if you are not in any way concerned and your dog should quickly mimic your behaviour during this programme.


Counter Conditioning

This means changing the way that the dog presently responds to a particular trigger (stimulus). For this programme you will need to have several rewards available in order of how much your dog values each individual reward.

Applications

Use for dogs that have a phobia about certain sounds such as thunderstorms or going to dog shows or aircraft noises etc., which result in the dog having a poor quality of daily life due to their being unable to cope with their extreme level of fear.

The Treatment

There are five basic types of reward that can be used in a counter conditioning programme;

  • Physical praise – this includes stroking, patting, scratching, cuddling and tummy tickling
  • Verbal praise – by using the words ‘good dog’, but it is more important to generate a feeling of excitement and enthusiasm, which should immediately result in a wagging tail.
  • Food – one of the ingredients necessary for survival which means, correctly used, it can be a very powerful tool in reward training.
  • Games with toys – playing with toys is a learned behaviour and so to use play as a reward your dog must understand (have been taught) how to play with a toy.
  • Freedom – being allowed time to run free, sniff and feel the wind through their hair can be a very powerful motivation for complying with the wishes of the handler.

To determine what rewards you can use in changing your dog’s reaction to certain sounds try answering the following questions;

  • Name five things, in order of importance that your dog would choose to play with if they were given a free choice in the matter.
  • Name five foods in order of preference that your dog would like to eat if given a free choice.
  • Of the ways to give physical praise which are listed above, place these in the order that your dog would most enjoy them.
  • Name five places that your dog would choose to go to if a free choice were given and what your dog would choose to do when it arrived there.

So now that you are armed with a number of graduated rewards you are ready to begin your programme.

Firstly, you must make or buy or a recording of the sounds you wish to reduce your dog’s sensitivity to. For example, several tracks from the links below which you can set to play on a loop –

Affiliate links

To start off you should select an environment where your dog feels comfortable such as your dog’s favourite room in your house. Also choose a time of day when you are going to be present for at least four hours. Then you should prepare the sound or sounds ready to play on repeat on a stereo or mp3 player, etc. that most closely match the sound or sounds that your dog is worried about.

Set the recording ready to play on repeat with the volume down to its very lowest setting. Sit down and relax before switching on the tape – there should be no sound coming out of the speakers as the volume is switched all the way off!

Now put one hand on the volume control and watch your dog closely. Slowly raise the volume until you get the faintest recognition from your dog. This recognition usually takes the form of the dog tilting his head on one side or pricking up one or both ears. When you get this indication that your dog has heard the sound then leave the volume set at this level for at least three days. Leave the tape playing for as long as possible – 24 hours would be ideal but if this is not possible then at the first exposure the time must be in excess of four hours. The more the tape is played over the first three days the better it works.

When you reach the point after three or more days when your dog is no longer taking any notice of the sounds then slowly start to raise the volume on a daily basis until you have the volume closely resembling the level that your dog would normally hear it in the environment.

The idea is to get the dog to ignore the sounds and pay no attention to them.  This is what most owners want but if you now want to counter condition the dog you would only now start to pair the sounds on the tape with some of the rewards that you have listed above. Start off by only playing the tape in conjunction with an exciting activity such as feeding or playing with a toy. Try to make sure that you start off with rewards that are fairly low in value – save the better rewards for later in the programme. Continue to play the tape all of the time the rewards are being given and stop the tape immediately after the reward stops.

Within a few days of pairing the rewards with the sounds you should begin to see the dog pleasantly anticipating the reward whenever he hears the sound on the tape.

Now begin to take your dog out to various locations and exposing him to the sounds on the tape and, as you do so, slowly increase the strength of the rewards that you offer.

You should also note that you will usually need to desensitise and then counter condition your dog to other triggers such as sight and smell associations. For example if you have a dog that suffers from Brontophobia (fear of thunderstorms) you may also need to use a strobe light played outside your window blinds on a dark evening to simulate the lightning flashes and also an air ioniser to simulate the change in + and – charged particles in the air. This is incorporated into your programme as soon as the sound part of the programme is completed.


We hope you found this article useful? If you would like to learn more about dog training and behaviour feel free to sign up for our free 20 unit course which covers subjects such as this in much greater depth.

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