Conditioning a Dog to Loud Noises

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Pamela J. Reid, Ph.D., ASPCA

Mr. Sears met me at his front door so that I wouldnt ring the doorbell and upset Robbin, his seven-month-old yellow Labrador retriever. Though he seemed happy with his new family, the puppy was having trouble adjusting to the hustle and bustle of the city where the Sears family lived. He was reluctant to walk to and from the park and he was frightened of loud noises. Sears had looked forward to going on weekend hiking and fishing trips with Robbin, but now he could barely get him to come out of the house.

Conditioning a Dog to Loud Noises

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When he was five months old, Robbin had had a traumatic experience that worsened his fearful condition. He and Sears were out for their evening walk when they stopped at a local convenience store. Sears absent-mindedly tied Robbin to a sturdy metal garbage can in front of the shop and went inside. A few moments later, he heard a loud bang and ran outside to see Robbin racing down the middle of the street with the garbage can dragging noisily behind him. A passerby managed to tackle Robbin to a halt just a block away from a very busy intersection.

The Aftermath
After this incident, Robbin began startling at the slightest noise, barking ferociously at houseguests and refusing to go for walks. Robbin still enjoyed his daily romp in the park, but he would only leave the house if he saw Sears opening the car door. At the park, he behaved normally but was still hesitant to approach other dog owners. A dog like Robbin, who is predisposed to noise sensitivity, can easily associate all sorts of things with a traumatic event. It appeared that Robbins experience affirmed in his mind that loud traffic noises are scary and that strangers should be avoided. Once established, these fears can be difficult to overcome. Sears decided to seek professional help for the dog.

When I entered the Sears living room that first day, Robbin quickly hid behind the nearest piece of furniture and let loose a cacophony of barks. I sat on the floor on the opposite side of the room, turned my back to Robbin and gently tossed treats in his direction. Slowly, the barking decreased as Robbin crept toward me to investigate the morsels I had tossed. After about an hour, I felt a cold nose on my neck. Shortly thereafter Robbin was lying beside me, coaxing more treats from my stash.

The Recovery
Robbins veterinarian started him on the anti-anxiety medication Elavil, which helped lessen his reaction to noise. The Sears also obtained recordings from the library of city sounds, which they played whenever they fed Robbin, played with him, gave him chew toys or massaged him. They also sat in the car at busy intersections with the windows down to get Robbin used to the street noises.

To encourage Robbin to walk on the streets again, we used an approach called backward chaining. Since Robbin liked being home and didnt like being on the street, Sears took Robbin out in the car several times a day, parked a very short distance away and walked Robbin the rest of the way home. They started with a half block and worked up from there, backtracking along the route Sears wanted Robbin to walk. Eventually, Robbin would understand that leaving home was the start of a chain that ended in returning home. We did the same type of thing at the park: Each day, Robbin had to walk a little bit farther to reach the ultimate reward of playing with his friends.

We addressed Robbins fear of strangers with desensitization and counter conditioning. At first, guests to the Sears home behaved in much the same way as I did when I first visited. With each subsequent visit, they were asked to behave more normally, sitting on chairs rather than on the floor. At the park, Sears asked everyone to offer Robbin treats whenever he passed by them. The Sears family also ordered a lot of take-out foodand always ordered a special dish for Robbinto help get him used to the idea of people ringing the doorbell.

Robbin progressed rapidly on this training regimen and, within a few months, he was barking happily, rather than with fear, whenever the doorbell rang. He greeted strangers with enthusiasm both at home and at the park. Robbin was still nervous during his walks in the street, and loud bangs would always be his nemesis, but he was becoming much less reactive to noise in general. He was able to be gradually weaned off the Elavil. Best of all, the pair can finally enjoy their country hiking and fishing trips.

© 2002 ASPCA

ASPCA Animal Watch – Spring 2002

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