Thursday, October 16, 2014

Desensitizing Skittish Dogs to Loud Noises

Helping your dog feel safe is key

"Soothing words, however well intended, only make the situation worse because they are interpreted by your dog as being rewards for the fearful behavior, and the behavior will, without a doubt, become more pronounced."

Tips for Desensitizing Skittish Dogs to Loud Noises

If your dog is skittish and fearful, particularly in response to strange (to them) or loud noises, it is important, first and foremost, to Not pet and fuss over them and Not say things like, "There...there... it's O.K...." in a soothing voice.  Just make regular talk, like, "Oh, my!  That was a big noise!"  in a perfectly normal voice with good positive inflection, calm and steady.   Soothing words, however well intended, only make the situation worse because they are interpreted by your dog as being Rewards for the fearful behavior, and the behavior will, without a doubt, become more pronounced.

If you observe the dog’s frightened behavior but know that you are not able pick up the dog at that time, ignore the behavior and perhaps shrug in an exaggerated way, palms raised, facing up, and say something like, “Oh, well!  No big deal!” and turn away and do something else for ten minutes.  Never reach for your fearful dog unless you know you can easily pick it up.

After a brief period, calmly pick up and carry the dog, projecting a strong, calm demeanor, and just go about some normal tasks, or walk around the house, pausing to look at this or that.  This, alone, done correctly, is an excellent way to develop trust in a fearful dog.  If you incorporate into this casual routine the pattern of picking up different things, offering them to your dog to sniff, then say something like, “Now, we’re going to make a big noise!” then make the noise with the object and smile and offer it again for sniffing.  Put it aside and do something else, like look out the window and say something like, “Look at that!  There’s a squirrel in the tree!”

Whatever words you use are only important in that they help you get the right tone of voice and inflection, so avoid saying anything that will sound sweet or soothing.  Calm and in control is what you want to project, so please keep this in mind.  If talking about baseball or car problems sets the right tone, that is perfectly fine!

Maintain a good but gentle control and have a lead attached at all times, with the loop handle around your wrist.  Your dog should understand that with the lead on they are not going to get away from you, so they do tend to relax more and trust you, more and more each time.

Use bits of cheese or other high-value treats to reward calm responses and calmness after sniffing the noisy object.  In addition, reward other positive moments, like, if you say, “Look at such and such!” and the dog looks, offer a treat and praise.

This exercise should become a daily practice, and is effective to help desensitize a fearful dog - as long as you stay calm and sure at all times.  As a bonus, it can be a truly pleasurable bonding experience as well. 

As you progress, you can say, “Mommy’s going to make a big noise!” to get your dog’s attention whenever you are not holding the dog.  You should point out whatever you are going to make the noise with, smiling calmly as you do.   Make the noise and finish with, “All done!”  Then go to the treat jar or cheese bin and ask your dog to come to you to “Sit!” and offer the treat.  Connecting the two actions will further help desensitize your dog to different noises while it also improves your bond.

Always offer the treat/reward in your hand.  This is critical to always advance the idea that your hands are good and only good things come from your hands.  It is always good to practice at least one session every day where you are asking for an action, however small, from your Cairn and they are receiving the treasured prize directly from your hand, whether the exercise is related to desensitizing training or any other activity.

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