Noise phobia is a dreaded phrase in training circles. Pernicious and pervasive, it can render dogs unable to function in everyday environments. Unlike other triggers, noise is difficult to predict and impossible to control – particularly if the dog lives in a shared building, apartment, or urban environment. Noise phobia often co-occurs with other fearful and anxious behaviors, adding more complexity onto an already difficult situation.

Fortunately, training and collaboration with a veterinary behaviorist for medications can reduce stress for the dog and provide hope for the client. When working with noise phobia, I focus on three key areas:

  • Reducing startle response: Fearful dogs have a high startle response when they encounter particular triggers. Consistent, high incidences of startling increases a dog’s stress and decreases the dog’s ability to cope with triggers he encounters in his everyday environment.
  • Increasing recovery time: The quicker a dog can recover from a startle response, the better. In this context, recovery means a dog’s ability to return to below threshold, take food, and respond to cues and prompts from the guardian.
  • Accessing coping skills: The more coping skills a dog has, the easier it is to help him stay under threshold and stay comfortable amid environmental stress. Coping skills strengthen a fearful dog’s continued recovery.

The following are demonstrations of recent training sessions with Lucy, a fearful dog with severe noise phobia. Because she lives in San Francisco, Lucy’s guardians have minimal control over where and when Lucy will be exposed to startling noises.

Reducing startle response

When we first began training, Lucy was often too uncomfortable to go outside for walks. Her fear had a significant negative impact on her quality of life. If she encountered a sudden noise, she often shut down for the rest of the outing, refusing food and sometimes needing to be carried back home. In order to countercondition Lucy to noises, we created training games where she toppled over various objects to access treats. In other words, she created her own noise. Initially, we started with just the paper cup, then progressed to placing paper spoons on top of the cup. In the following video, I do a short warm-up and then place treats on top of a metal spoon, which she happily topples over.

Increasing recovery time

Lucy will likely always startle to some extent when she hears sudden noises. Our goal with the following training exercise was to improve her recovery time so that after a sudden noise, the guardians had a greater window to countercondition and help Lucy return to her comfort threshold. Over the course of a month, the mom created sudden noise followed by heavy doses of food to lessen startle response and improve recovery time. This video is after a month of work, starting with paper/lightweight objects and moving onto spoons/keys. Ideally, there is more time between conditioning trials; here, I’m demonstrating the technique and marking her progress.

Coping skills

I taught the mom how to use hand targeting, loose leash walking training, and “find it” games on walks to keep Lucy moving, happy and engaged with training. As you can see in this video, Lucy is able to focus on training games and cope with a walk in a busy neighborhood in San Francisco.

An important takeaway from these videos is acknowledging that the goal when training fearful dogs shouldn’t be “erasing” the fear. While dogs can become more confident and less triggered by their environment, it’s a lifelong journey, and unreasonable to expect that the fear can be switched off like a bad habit. Instead, the goal should be giving dogs coping skills and helping them feel safe so that when the environment does get scary, they have a better chance of recovering.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com. She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.

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