Louie is extremely sound sensitive. It is improving as he becomes more confident and secure in his skin and surroundings but their are still sounds that literally turn him into a maniac. When Louie encounters a noise that scares him, his reaction mimics one of pure pain. He will be calmly walking one minute and then will jump straight up in the air with all four feet like someone electrocuted him and he will scream. Not whimper or whine but a full out blood curdling scream. I try to watch for potential triggers and make sure I am far enough away so it will not cause such a violent reaction (exceeds his threshold). Once he has reacted, it is difficult to calm him back down and gain his attention or confidence. If I see a skateboard in the next block, I will either turn early or turn around and retrace my steps to avoid the encounter.
Here are a few desensitizing techniques I use with Louie:
The one technique that I have had some success with is desensitizing them to the noise at home in a controlled environment with the sound recorded so I can control the volume.
- I fill a Kong with peanut butter and dog food and have LOTS of really GOOD treats. You need to find something that the dog LOVES and will distract him/her and gain 100% of her attention. Louie will do back flips for a Kong filled with peanut butter. Some dogs are not as food motivated so maybe it is a toy or a tennis ball.
- I introduce the noise at a low volume, almost zero. And I start giving him treats. I have to make sure all other distractions and dogs are not in the room. I start to increase the volume of the noise slowly continuing to feed him treats. If he starts to react, I stop increasing the volume and give him the Kong and try to maintain that volume level, keep the reaction at bay and have him enjoy his Kong. If he is too bothered by that noise level, I decrease the volume a bit. The goal is for him to enjoy his Kong without exceeding his threshold. I am very careful to not allow him to hit his threshold. Sometimes I have to decrease the volume quite a bit for him to enjoy his Kong. That is okay as this is a long slow process and I want it to be an enjoyable exercise for him.
- Keep repeating this and increasing the volume of the whistle every few days. I always start at zero volume and slowly increase even if this is the 10th or 20th session. The key here is to build confidence and remove the fear. You never want to increase the volume so much that he cowers, gets scared or reacts.
- Don’t baby talk (“It’s okay” “Don’t be frightened”) or “comfort” him because our voice and body language can say “oh no, you are going to be scared!” and that just raises their anxiety and reinforces that they should be scared. Remember dogs are much more sensitive to our body language and tone of voice than we think. The goal is to distract or occupy they begin to associate the noise with good things (counter-conditioning).
There are several articles and videos on this technique. I must admit I have yet to be completely successful with Louie as he has so many noises but he is getting better. In fact, it was thundering here the other night (June in Wisconsin so we haven’t had many thunderstorms in several months), not badly but enough that he would normally start pacing or whining or both. He was sleeping on
the floor a few feet next to me and he never moved. The storm never came on full force and Louie never reacted. Time will tell this summer how successful we have been!
This is a pretty good video on desensitizing http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VLx2yNhfACI
Outside Desensitizing or Environmental Desensitizing
I also pick days to work with Louie outside in the environment as I cannot and will not always have him in the house and have control of the environment around him. Therefore we both need to learn how to cope with his fears at a moments notice and in public. I know my neighborhood pretty well and will choose the trigger (fear producing activity or noise) I would like to try and work on and then go to that area. I live fairly close to a college campus so that is a great place for Louie triggers.
It also has lots of wide open public spaces so I can get far enough away from the trigger to have some control over it and Louie. I will take Louie and because of his size and his reactions I will use a collar or harness that I am 100% confident I will have control of him so he does not get hurt nor will I. I also have a heavy duty tool belt with a carabiner with 200lb capacity that I attach his leash to so he cannot pull away from me or injure my shoulder. I also pack LOTS of Louie’s favorite treats and a peanut butter Kong or two. We set off to find a comfy spot in a park or on campus to hang out and enjoy some “lounge” time.
- Louie and I go on a normal walk and will avoid triggers if the setting is not right – i.e. I can’t get him far enough away or in a comfortable place to keep him calm. Again like in my house, I do not want him to exceed his threshold. This is much more difficult to do outside so be sure and do the “in home” technique first so you are more in tune with your dog’s reactions.
- Once I find a spot, I set up “camp” and we hang out. Usually will hang there for 15 minutes and normally we can encounter several triggers as Louie has so many. Every time a see a trigger approaching I toss a treat and try not to react. If he starts to elevate his senses, I might say “Leave It” (which is his command for ignore it or no you cannot chase it). I might start talking to him in a calm, normal manner to keep his attention on me even though I know he is watching the trigger.
- If it gets too intense, I will give him the Kong and see if that keeps him calm. If not, I will casually get up and move farther away from the trigger until Louie begins to pay more attention to me and the treats than the trigger.
- The goal outside is to get them around their fears but again keep them from reaching their threshold. It is much more difficult than at home so I don’t ever have a set number of encounters or time. My goal is to be successful in keeping him calm, rewarding him and then coming home. If he does go over board, I try and find a nice quiet trigger free route home so by the time we are home, he is back to comfortable and confident.