The Sound of Silence - Helping your Primitive Dog with Sound Sensitivity
Dogs are adaptable. They live on every continent besides Antarctica. Fun Fact: The only reason they don’t live in Antarctica is that they were all removed in 1993. Dogs can live near train tracks, construction sites, airports, and anywhere else that is filled with loud noise. So how do we have dogs that are afraid of thunder, fireworks, and even traffic. The answer is habituation.
The definition of habituation is “the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus”. Normally in a world where a dog is free to move around, they can slowly habituate themselves to a noise until they tune it out. The problem for our pets is that we control exposure and we are terrible at exposing our dogs to loud things to the point of habituation. In reality we accidentally do something called sensitization.
Sensitization refers to a non-associative learning process through which repeated exposure to a stimulus results in the progressive amplification (increasing strength) of the reaction to the stimulus.(1) In simple English this means that the dog becomes more excited or upset by the noise instead of learning to ignore it. We do this accidentally via poor timing, inability for the learner to escape exposure, lack of exposure, and random or stressfully paired associations.
So how do we properly assist dogs in sound habituation?
In all honesty, it’s hard to do true protocols the way a dog would naturally habituate. This requires relatively constant exposure from a very young age (6 weeks old). This is how hunting dogs and police dogs are taught to be unafraid of gunfire. Good owners and breeders can expose puppies to the vacuum, appliances, smoke alarms, traffic, the tv, etc. But most owners and breeders are unequipped to do this for all sounds. Fireworks and thunderstorms are one of the hardest because they are infrequent. Location of where the puppies are whelped also plays a part. Rural puppies are not exposed to city sounds. City puppies have the same problem with rural sounds.
There are tools to increase exposure as a tiny puppy. This can be done by playing sounds through a speaker near the puppies. This can also help dogs who missed this exposure and are now sensitized. The difference is that with dogs who are sensitized, exposure alone will not work. In fact it might make it worse. You have to pair the experience with something the dog has a very strong positive emotional association with. Namely meat.
For desensitization I start with the Sound Proof Puppy Training App (2) for iPhone and Android. You can even use the app to record noises that are not pre-recorded. Start with the volume at 2-3. Play the noise and watch your dog’s reaction. If they bark stop and turn the volume down. Walk your dog away from the noise and reward them. Then reset. If they are curiously listening, feed them immediately. If your dog wants to flee, allow them. In a case where your dog wants to get away, make the sound quieter, further away or behind a door. Practice until your dog is calmer and expectant of food.
Once we’ve done a few formal sessions, I start playing the sounds when my dog is eating, using a puzzle toy, chewing a bone, with the tv blocking out most of the noise, etc. Sometimes for more realistic effect I will play the app through my tv or surround sound. Remember that if your dog wants to flee, or even stops what they were doing, it is probably too loud. Practice with all kinds of noises and at different times of the day until your dog doesn’t care anymore.
Having a dog that is calm and comfortable around different noises is a pleasure for you and for them. Think about what noises cause discomfort and start today. They’ll be happier and so will you. Let us know now this method works for you! Contact us via the contact us page or on our Facebook group.