Firecrackers, loud car engines, motorcycles and sudden unexpected noises such as dropping car keys may startle your dog but you can help him relax.
Does your dog frequently startle at the faintest noises? If so, you may notice your dog is extra vigilant and tense for most of the day, with little space for relaxation. If you just rescued a dog or got one from a shelter, it may just be that he may need some extra time to settle down and get used to all the noises in his new environment. This may take days or weeks depending on the dog’s temperament, but if it takes much longer, it could be a sign that the dog had poor socialization and perhaps never lived in a home around people before. There are a couple of ways to give relief to a dog fearful of noises.
Habituation: getting the dog used to noises
Generally, as previously mentioned, it takes a little bit of time for a rescued dog to get accustomed to all the new sights, smells and sounds of your home. In order to better understand the cognitive processes a dog like this goes through, it helps to tackle the subject of habituation.
Habituation is a process during which the dog learns to stop reacting to certain stimuli. For instance, a new dog for the first time in a home may initially startle and bark when it hears the vacuum cleaner, but then as it sees it and hears it after some time, he gets the idea that the vacuum is pretty much irrelevant and not worth barking at. Habituation, therefore, occurs when a dog is exposed to a stimuli over and over and stops reacting to it.
Many dogs that live in noisy areas such as homes near airports, loud junk yards, or bustling cities where noisy sirens and motorcycles abound, eventually get used to all the commotion. Bombarded with such stimuli for most of the day, they learn to filter out such stimuli and only pay attention to more relevant information (like the noise of a can opener releasing a can of dog food!). Imagine what life would be like for these dogs if they had to startle at every noise for the rest of their lives!
Desensitization: training the dog to no longer fear noises
In order for long-term habituation to take place, the stimuli must be presented through repeated exposure over time. For instance, if your dog is scared of thunder, you would purchase a tape recording of thunder storms and start playing it at a low volume that causes little fear. Then as your dog gradually gets used to it, you would play it gradually louder and louder in routine sessions separated in time. This systematic process is known as desensitization.
It is very important that the stimuli starts mild (sub-threshold) and is spread well through time. It is very difficult for a dog to habituate to stimuli that causes strong emotional reactions. If your dog is fearful of thunder, his fear will actually increase if you decide to walk him outside in the middle of a thunder storm. Same happens to a dog scared of gunfire when taken to a shooting range. This process is called ”sensitization” and it is the actual opposite of habituation. To reduce ”sensitization” therefore a ” systematic desensitization procedure” will need to be implemented.
Counter-conditioning: training the dog to like noises
Counter-conditioning is another process that will help the noise-phobic dog overcome its fears. This process actually accelerates habituation because it works by teaching the dog to no longer dread the noises but to actually start likening them. This method can therefore be combined with habituation to bring out optimal results.
Counterconditioning works by pairing the unpleasant noise with something pleasant. High-value treats broken down in small pieces appear to work the best for this process. In order to work well, counterconditioning must abide to the same rules of gradual exposure since fearfulness interferes with the dog’s ability to learn and take treats.
Jerome B. Robinson in his book ”Training the Hunting Retriever” offers a nice program for training hunting dogs to not fear loud noises. He starts out by making a lot of noise when preparing the dog’s meal. This involves slamming doors, rattling the food bin, clanging the food dish. After some time, the dog will start pairing all those noises with food preparation, and therefore looking forward to them with anticipation. As the dog progresses and no longer reacts to all the commotion, the owner will then start firing a gun at a distance after serving the noisy meal. The dog will startle, but likely will resume eating in no time. The author suggests repeating for a week and then starting to shoot at closer distances. The shot will become a pleasant signal that it is dinner time and will no longer be a dreaded sound.
The Process of Spontaneous Recovery (understanding setbacks)
It is important to understand that occasionally, the dog will undergo moments where he will appear to be fearful of noises again. This is a normal process and is due to the fact that habituation undergoes short-term processes that “wear off” despite the best habituation and counterconditioning programs. However, the good news is that such setbacks will gradually lessen as the dog progresses.