Dear Petlvr Mailbag …
My dog has a fear of noises. At our training park, there is a BMX track next door. When the bikes take off, they go through an opening gate which comes down with a hell of a bang. It’s so bad it makes my dog jump, then she shuts down. I have sat with her for hours every week to get her out of this but no chance. Maybe you have some ideas.
As it happens, I do have some ideas! The phenomenon you’re describing when your dog experiences a frightening stimulus and then “shuts down” is called flooding. Flooding happens when a dog is overloaded with stressors.
Some trainers of dubious merit even use flooding intentionally to produce what appears to be instant results in the dogs they’re training. Since dogs appear calm from a distance when flooded, it looks as if the trainer has quickly turned a frantic or aggressive dog into a calm pet. Unfortunately for the owners of dogs used in this type of demonstration, flooding usually worsens fear or aggression in the long run.
You’ve probably already noticed this problem in your own dog: The more often you sit with her and expose her to this loud noise, the worse her phobia becomes. This is a consequence of the repeated flooding. The solution is to keep pushing her slightly out of her comfort zone where noises are concerned, but without pushing her anywhere near the “red zone” of stress, where flooding happens.
The same technique, progressive desensitization, which I recommended for Hart’s yappy Papillon, will help your dog overcome her noise phobia.
First, you’ll need a recording of the loud noise at the BMX track. You’ll also need a rug or dog bed and a stick of air freshener— the kind with a replaceable cap. Use only things your dog hasn’t seen before, not her usual bed or an air freshener used in your car. Finally, you’ll need a supply of your dog’s favorite treats.
Cue your dog to lie down on the new rug or bed, and uncap the air freshener. The key is to give her multiple new stimuli which she’ll now associate with calmly listening to noises. Start feeding your dog some treats, and as you do so, turn the recording on at a very low volume. Expose your dog to the recording for only about five minutes each day to start. If she shows any signs of stress, stop and go back to it at a lower volume the next afternoon.
Don’t go back to the BMX facility until your dog is unfazed by listening to the recording at full blast for several minutes on end. When you do return to the facility to listen to the real noise, take the bed and air freshener from home along, as well as the treats. Treat the real thing just like another practice session, and so will your dog.
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