by Lisa Lyle Waggoner
Do loud sudden noises have your dog running for cover? Barking like crazy? Trembling uncontrollably? Well, know that you’re not alone.
While there are a multitude of sounds that each individual dog may be sensitive to, there are 4 major sounds that often cause mild to severe anxiety in most dogs: fireworks, thunderstorms, gunshots and vacuum cleaners. Many of you may have seen your furry friend displaying one or more of the above signs of stress during this past 4th of July weekend.
Our own boy, Cody, is extremely sensitive to thunder. While our previous dog, Abbey, would glue herself to our side, cower and shake during a thunderstorm, Cody’s reaction is to bark loudly and continually, while running from one end of the house to the other and then back again. Stressful for him, for sure, and pretty irritating for us too.
And yes, gunshots have the same reaction on Cody. My dog trainer colleagues who live in metro areas laugh at this because gunshots are something they don’t often experience. Or, if they do, they know it’ll soon be followed by sirens. Not the case here in the country where neighbors may be target shooting on their own property at any given time of the day.
And the dreaded vacuum cleaner. Not only does this scary looking object make an extremely loud, whirling sound, but it also moves! Who hasn’t watched at least one of their dogs bark, bite and chase the vacuum cleaner as you’re trying to vacuum up some of Fido’s fur off the floor?
The good news is that there’s help for your dog’s sound sensitivity. In fact, it’s very important that you help your dog become more comfortable with these sounds, for anxiety and stress have detrimental effects on the health of your dog (just like us humans). There’s a behavior modification protocol, counter conditioning and desensitization (CC&D) that has many applications, but is certainly useful for dogs with sound sensitivities. Counter conditioning is connecting “a good thing” with “the bad thing” in such a way that “the bad thing” ends up predicting “the good thing.” The “good thing” is most often some extremely yummy food that your dog will do back flips for when you bring it out. Desensitization is insuring that the connecting of the “good” and “bad” is performed in such a way so that the dog doesn’t display the reactive behavior.
Let’s use the vacuum cleaner as an example. It’s helpful to have two people to do the set ups: one person is in another part of the house with the dog, while the other person has the vacuum cleaner. When the vacuum cleaner (the bad thing) is turned on, the person in the other part of the house with the dog feeds the extremely yummy food (the good thing) to the dog. When the vacuum cleaner (bad thing) is turned off, the food (good thing) goes away (you can think of this as Open Bar/Closed Bar). This scenario is repeated multiple times until eventually when the vacuum cleaner is turned on, the dog looks at the person with the food as if to say, “Where’s my yummy food?” This is known as a conditioned emotional response (CER) and is normally the point at which you can begin decreasing the distance between the dog and the vacuum cleaner. The important thing in this process is to GO SLOW. It’s not an overnight fix, but all dogs can make progress.
Our guy, Cody, was totally over the top when he first heard a vacuum cleaner, but with some effective CC&D, he now walks calmly beside the vacuum cleaner or even lies down in its path wondering when if a piece if yummy food might fall from the sky. And you know what, periodically it does!