03/06/2017 - Behaviour Matters
I know the season for fireworks is way off and this is traditionally when we write about all the things you can do to help your dog, but often we are just providing a sticking plaster to get your dog through the scary ordeal as we have left any proactive work until too late. Ideally, if you really want the best chance of helping your dog, you should start now.
When we talk about dogs that are noise sensitive or have phobias, we generally think about the big two – fireworks and thunder, but there are plenty of dogs that are just as terrified of other sounds such as bird scarers, gunshots, exhaust pipes and video games sounds etc.
This month I thought I would break with tradition and write about noise phobias, which may prompt you to start working with your dog that is terrified of fireworks, now. I will use the term phobia which is an intense fear of something that in reality poses little or no actual danger.
Noise sensitivity and phobia can have a sudden onset caused by a single scary event or it can appear gradually over time where, for example, in year one they did not seem to notice the fireworks, in year two they were a little more anxious and by year three they are terrified at the first bang.
Like many behaviours that have their roots in fear, noise phobias can be incredibly challenging to work with, not least because it can be so difficult to control the environment and predict when the sound will happen. The loud noises always seem to happen when you least expect them and suddenly after weeks of work gradually desensitising your dog, you get caught out and you find yourself back at square one.
In some cases, it can be so bad that the welfare of the dog must be a big consideration and it may be better to find a new home for the dog as far away from the problem sounds as possible.
A few months ago, I started working with a dog that got anxious about going outside.
I thought I would give you a brief outline of what we have done so far. A little background; this dog is a male, neutered, Staffie cross, believed to be 12 years old and had been living with the new owner for two years, following a rehome from a local charity. The reason given for relinquishment was that the previous owner had been unwell and could no longer cope.
The presenting behaviour problem that the owner wanted help with in their own words “he won’t go out into the garden”.
Before starting on the plan, a veterinary health check was requested to rule out any potential medical reasons that may cause or contribute to the problem behaviour but our dog was given a clean bill of health.
When we met, I went through several questions and it transpired that the dog was actually scared of gunshots and sounds similar to gunshots and they had been out walking when the shots started and the dog turned tail and ran home. The owner was a little surprised by his dog’s behaviour, as before this he stated “he had never done this before and had been fine and just ignoring them”.
This apparent sudden change from appearing fine, to not fine, was not as surprising to me as they lived near a military base where there was a rifle range and an area where recreational shooting takes place. The dog had probably never been fine, but gradually became more sensitive to the sounds of gunshots and now it had got to the point where the dog would only dash out for the toilet and would not go out to the garden even when there was no shooting, and certainly would not go for a walk.
The dog had started to build a picture in its mind where these scary sounds may happen and this picture involved the owner, the time of day, the direction of the walk and where the walk would take place. It was possible to walk the dog by other family members and when this happened, he appeared much more relaxed and would go out on his own free will. This did not mean the fear had gone, but instead having new people walk the dog probably just masked the behaviour.
During our initial meeting, we spent some time discussing the behaviour and why the dog may well have become fearful of the gunshots, even though it had appeared to be okay for the last two years.
We set our goals and discussed what was realistic and what were the range of possible outcomes we could expect to see – more often than not an owner’s expectations are significantly higher than what is probably achievable, but in this case, the client’s expectations were realistic – he wanted to be able to take his dog for walks again and be able to go out in the garden.
They were asked to discuss with their vet how they could help support the plan with appropriate medication and complementary products that they felt would help.
It is important for desensitisation that the dog is not continually exposed to scary sounds beyond the current step of the plan and certainly not when in the garden, as you can imagine, this can be a real problem and although it appeared unpredictable, it was actually more predictable than first thought. The military range and the shoot both had regular times of the week and year for their shooting activities and the land in close proximity did not allow others to shoot, so it was unlikely that they would hear gunshots in close proximity.
For walks, the initial solution was simple enough, they were going to take the dog in the car to ‘quiet’ areas on days when there was going to be shooting and on the other days they were going to take a new walk from the house that did not start from the rear garden.
Unless in a safe area, walks needed to be on a long line or lead just in case of a sudden and unexpected event that panicked the dog into fleeing.
Although the dog appeared to feel safe enough in the house, we have started creating a safe space in the house for him to retreat to if he becomes worried by the sound of gunshots from outside.
We discussed the use of a radio and pre-recorded music to make the noise less obvious when in the house.
We have set about making the garden a fun place and less predicative of scary stuff, we have been introducing scent games and been able to get the dog into the garden and playing games, which have also added a number of alternate exercising options.
Finally, we have started a desensitisation programme to gunshots sounds.
In all honesty, we have only just started, but the owner is happy again, they have been able to walk together again and their dog has started voluntarily going into the garden – baby steps, but baby steps in the right direction.