Fears, Phobias & Reactivity

sound desensitization

  • Sensitization

  • Responding vs. Reacting

  • Fears, Phobias, & Reactivity

  • Management

    • Hearing loss (Seniors)

    • Music Specifically for Dogs & Cats

    • White noise machine

    • Distraction Toys

    • Anxiety Wrap

  • Pain

  • Comforting a fearful dog?

  • Programs

    • Habituation Program

    • Desensitization Program

    • Counter-Conditioning Program

  • Soundtracks

    • Fireworks, thunder, rain, trash trucks, leaf blower, lawn mower, grass trimmer, smoke alarm, emergency alert broadcasts, skateboards, motorcycles, truck, portable air compressor, car wash, warehouse store, crowds

Soundtracks (bottom of page) are a tool to help desensitize dogs to noises that result in fearful, agitated, or highly excitable reactions. How they are used is dependent on the dog’s behavior. Used improperly you can make the reaction stronger and your dog even more hyper-sensitive to new sounds. (Sensitization) Sensitization can also result in the dog becoming sensitive to additional sounds that were previously of no concern. None of the programs outlined here should be confused with “Flooding” as has been seen on popular TV dog programs or in internet videos. “Flooding” is exposing the dog to the thing of concern at full intensity while at the same time preventing their escape. While this may look effective on TV or in videos what you generally are witnessing is a dog that is stressed and shut down. Although it may appear the dog has “learned” the sound/event is of no concern, or at least is tolerating, or not reacting, understand what you are witnessing is “adaptation” which is “the physical process of tiring.” … “The sensory neurons can tire and when they do, they actually stop working” If the sound/event was presented an hour or so later, or the next day the flight/avoidance behavior would reappear. So please be considerate of your animal and follow the guidelines as presented.

The soundtracks available here have been specifically designed for desensitization, but they can also be used for habituation and counter-conditioning. They are approximately 15-30 seconds recording that repeat in a continuous loop to provide a predictable pattern to minimize your dog being startled or surprised by the sounds. Through systematic and repeated exposure the predictability of the soundtracks is designed to build your dog’s immunity to the sounds over time.

Specific sounds can activate or inhibit a dog’s response. Dogs will respond or react in differing ways to sounds. There is a big difference in responding and reacting. In this context responding is functional and reacting dysfunctional. We would prefer to hear a doctor say we are responding to the medication rather than reacting to the medication.  

Common Ways Dogs Respond or React

  • Out of Control - High Arousal

  • Panic (Danger to self)

  • Fight (Redirected fear/frustration)

  • Avoid

  • Flight

  • Freeze

  • Fear:

    • fear is a natural response to something perceived as potentially threatening.

    • the dog’s actions are for the purpose of avoiding something that it fears or is concerned with, and the dog is in control of those actions.

  • Phobia:

    • phobias are exaggerated and irrational fear disproportional to the perceived threat.

    • cause some level of impairment, resulting in the dog being out of control.

  • Reactivity:

    • Can be high excitement/arousal both productive and unproductive arousal. Unproductive high arousal can result from fear or frustration.

  • Panic

    • Panicking resulting in hysterical or irrational behavior which can put the dog in greater danger.  

Which program to use?

If your dog’s response to an event (sound) is one of the following:

  • “lets get em” - Activated to go toward the sound.

  • “lets get outta here” - Activated to move away from the sound.

  • “RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!” - Absolute panic; runs frantically endangering self and not stopping to negotiate obstacles risking life and limb to escape.

  • Pacing, shaking, drooling, hiding, fear elimination (pee or poop)

  • Takes more then a minute to recover.

— USE THE “DESENSITIZATION” PROGRAM —

If your dog’s response to an event (sound) is:

  • Startles or reacts but recovers in under a minute

  • Startle response not resulting in a complete loss of control nor danger to self or others.

  • Barks excessively at: door bell/knock, mail or delivery truck and not a danger to others.

  • Dog is aware if you call his name but he finds it difficult to comply with requests; come here, sit, down, etc…

  • You can identity the sounds that will get a reaction.

— You can start with the Habituation program if you choose —

How long will it take?

How long it will take no one can tell you. How long does it take to loose weight, stop smoking, get in shape, build muscle, overcome your fear of clowns, snakes, etc.? It depends! . “What if I put in all this effort and follow the program for weeks and my dog doesn’t get better?” What if you don’t and your dog could have overcome his fear?

There are no shortcuts. Be prepared to take several weeks for each specific sound. It could take less time, but remember you can only move at the dog’s pace. Don’t go so fast you break something.


Management

Since we cannot control everything in the environment that causes our dogs concern its important to manage the environment and control those things that are within our control.

Dogs with Hearing Loss (Seniors)

The programs outlined below may not work for dogs with hearing deficits because they may not reliably hear the sounds at the lower levels which limits their ability to build an immunity or tolerance. Dogs with hearing deficits may only hear the sound when its at a volume that provokes a reaction. For these dogs we need to set up the environment to support them and minimize any stress.

Music & Calm

When your dog is someplace they feel safe and is lying down resting comfortably play calming music at a level your dog can hear to start to build an association between calming music and relaxation. Calming music can help comfort dogs, mask noises outside, break the silence, and provide background noise. Leaving a tv or radio on can help mask noises but the emergency broadcast alerts can be alarming for dogs so it is best to play your own recording to avoid this.

Lisa Spector - Concert Pianist, Juilliard Graduate, Pet Calming Maestro Calming Music for Dogs

At this stage it’s important to only play the calming music while you are home and the dog is resting comfortably so the music becomes associated with calm and relaxation. Do this as often as you can to strengthen the association between relaxation and the calming music. You can also incorporate an essential oil at the same time to make a second sensory association with relaxation.

When you can predict there will be an event/sounds that will cause your dog stress (storms, July 4, New Year’s Eve, etc.) be sure to exercise your dog (Unless there is a medical reason that prohibits it) prior to the start of the stressful event/sounds. A large yard is no substitute for walking or exercising your dog. How much exercise will be dependent on the dog and its health. Walks are great, but don’t turn them into a march or just a structured activity like heeling. Make walks enjoyable by giving your dog opportunities (and permission) to explore and use his/her nose to sniff those areas that are of interest to him/her as long as it is appropriate and safe. Vary the route you take on your walk and go someplace new for a walk. It’s important that our dogs are ready to rest before the event/sound starts. If your dog is healthy play fetch with them to tire them or engage them in nosework games such as find the toy or treats.

Before the event/sounds start encourage your tired dog to rest on his/her bed in a quite place in the home. Play the calming music that is now associated with relaxation and be sure you look relaxed and not stressed. To help mask the sound outside of windows or doors place a white noise machine near the window or door.

Marpac Dohm Classic White Noise Sound Machine


Entertaining & Distraction Toys

If your dog is relaxed but not ready to sleep give them a Qwizl, Happy Lapper, or stuffed Kong. My favorite is a jerky stuffed Qwizl since the dog will need to lie down and work at getting a jerky or fish skin out of the toy which should take a good amount of time if we force it in tightly. With Happy Lapper’s I like to freeze food or special treats in them to keep them distracted and entertained longer. For persistent dogs like labs and beagles a stuffed or frozen stuffed Kong is great. For dogs that are not as persistent and become frustrated trying to get the food treat out of a Kong use a Qwizl or Happy Lapper.

QWIZL

QWIZL

JERKY TREAT

JERKY TREAT

HAPPY LAPPER

HAPPY LAPPER

KONG

KONG


anxiety wrap

Some have found that an anxiety wrap has helped keep a dog calm. But as Temple Grandin points (see below) this is not a magic wrap. The effect wears off in about twenty minutes. Also be mindful not every dog likes the sensation of a body wrap so don’t force it. If you chose to try a wrap be careful that you don’t create the wrong association for your dog. If your dog excepts the wrap make sure you condition your dog to wearing it for short periods of time before the stressful event is likely to occur. If you only put the wrap on just before the stressful event your dog may learn that the wrap is an indication that concerning things are about to happen. Instead use the wrap for short periods of time prior to the stressful events and after putting it on your dog “surprise” your dog with a special food stuffed toy that will require them to go lay down to enjoy. Its important that whatever you offer your dog is a surprise so don’t let them see you prepping or staging the item. This way the wrap is a signal of good things to come!

With any kind of pressure treatment, you have to be careful not to leave it on too long. The maximum calming effect wears off in about twenty minutes, so, for longer treatments, it often works best to apply the treatment for twenty to thirty minutes, take it off for thirty minutes, and then reapply.” Temple Grandin - Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals


Pain?

Noise Sensitivities in Dogs: An Exploration of Signs in Dogs with and without Musculoskeletal Pain Using Qualitative Content Analysis

“In this study, concerns over musculoskeletal problems were confirmed using a range of procedures (some individuals having multiple procedures): four clearly demonstrated pain during physical examination in the clinic, eight were radiographed, and one underwent magnetic resonance imaging. The problems identified or inferred related to the hip (including dysplasia–five subjects), degenerative joint disease of the limbs (four subjects), and focal spondylosis in L2 and L3 (one subject). In six of these cases, the owner commented that the dog seemed to be in some pain and/or the pain worsened after exercise.”

“There was a large proportion of neutered dogs: 9 of 10 of both controls and “clinical cases,” whereas the Pet Animal Welfare Report (29) suggests that nationally only about 71% of dogs are neutered. A study by Spain et al. (30) found that decreasing age at gonadectomy in shelter dogs was associated with an increased risk of developing a noise phobia, but it could not be concluded that neutering is causative of noise phobias.”


Mutt Muffs hearing protection was developed for dogs that fly in small planes. Mutt Muffs do not eliminate sounds they are designed to reduce the sound “decibel level”. So wearing them may not make a difference for most dogs with good hearing. If you decide to try these, like any tool you choose you will need to get your dog comfortable wearing them in a positive manner long before the stressful events occur. They should look forward to putting them on; it should not be another stressful event.

MUTT MUFFS HEARING PROTECTION

MUTT MUFFS HEARING PROTECTION

MUTT MUFFS

MUTT MUFFS

I have not used SOLLIQUIN but others have reported positive results.


Comforting A Fearful Dog?

If a dog only has a mild concern ignoring the behavior has its place. If we do not react to the sound/event and treat it as no consequence we can often be a good role model for our dog’s behavior. If we overreact we can reinforce their behavior by validating their interpretation of the events leading this to be a learned response. For a few of these dogs that do not get enough attention from their family their concerned behavior can be rewarded with their family’s attention and so in doing this behavior can become an attention seeking behavior. But don’t assume your dog is using this to seek attention. You nor your friends have likely ever seen this behavior. If this is still a question for you, reexamine whether you are fulling your dog’s needs for attention, social interaction, exercise, and mental stimulation.

I’m all for comforting and doing what’s necessary and beneficial for the dog. That being said it comes down to how we attempt to comfort a dog. If you act or look; frantic, like you are apologizing, or mourning the loss of a love one when attempting to comfort your dog, you most likely are not helping your dog in that situation. We won’t make them more fearful, but when done incorrectly we can actually validate anxious, nervous, and fearful behavior. And we certainly won’t lead them to believe we are not concerned with the event if we are acting in an inappropriate manner. We need to act calm, under control, understanding and like we are capable of handling the situation. Suzanne Clothier explains what “calming contact” should look like in the video “Calming the Fearful Dog”. Our behavior can add to the experience or reflect an alternative interpretation of of the event for the dog that is not concerning.  

Since stress, fear, and anxiety are emotional responses/reactions trying to “correct” the behavior is inappropriate and likely will add to the fear or anxiety.


Programs

The same soundtrack can be used in the three differing programs designed to help with sensitivity to specific sounds. Place the speaker across the room from where your dog would normally rest when your dog is not present. We do not want to draw attention to the speaker.

Our first goal with the habituation and desensitization programs is the intensity of the soundtrack should never cause a negative response/reaction. e. g. shaking, pacing, drooling, hiding, fear elimination (pee or poop), etc… At no time with any of these programs is the dog to be confined to a crate, nor should the dog believe it has no option to leave the area to avoid the sounds. Contrary to popular belief neither dogs nor wolves are “den” animals in the way it has been popularized. For clarity, “denning” is a seasonal maternal behavior and the den is only used for newborn puppies for about 8-weeks before being abandoned. While there may be dogs that would choose a protected area such as a crate for resting this is not the norm. If this was the normal behavior for dogs there would not be the strong emphases on “crate training”. Choosing a resting place that is isolated is different from choosing a crate.. Sadly way too many people believe a crate is a necessary "tool" for confinement. When confinement is required, I prefer to limit a dog’s access to other areas with a barrier like a baby gate or other types of barriers.

For most people looking for help it will be best to start with the “Desensitization” program and then possibly follow up with the “Counter-Conditioning” program if appropriate. The “Habituation” program is generally used to expose young dogs to sounds they are likely to hear as they go through life so we can prevent unreasonable fears. (Auditory vaccination) The “Habituation” program can be used for older dogs to lower the arousal/excitement of mild/moderately reactive dogs that do not present a risk of harm to others.

HABITUATION PROGRAM

This program is simply letting the dog get used to sounds by repeated exposures to the sounds in question until the sounds become inconsequential and no longer provoking a reaction. (Background noise) This is done without causing stress or being overwhelming. Over time the sounds can become familiar and meaningless and no longer creating a negative reaction. People habituate to traffic, airplanes, and train sounds over time and get to the point they don’t pay attention to them anymore since it becomes background noise.

  • Purpose

    • To diminish reactions or overreactions to meaningless stimuli

  • Caution:

    • This program may be appropriate for dogs exhibiting excitement or high arousal. I DO NOT recommend this program for dogs with anxiety, fear, phobias, aggression, out of control arousal, or dogs that may redirect aggression due to frustration. (See “Which Program To Use?” above)

  • Soundtrack

Turn the soundtrack on and play at normal levels letting the soundtrack repeat and continue for a minimum of four-hours. Continue this each day for as long as possible. Treat the soundtrack as if it is no consequence and ignore your dog’s behavior. Do not attempt to correct or address his behavior in any way as long as it is safe to do so. If your dogs looks stressed or anxious (see above “What Program To Use”) turn off and start with the Desensitization program the following day being careful not to cause your dog undue stress or anxiety.

For dogs that become overly excited/aroused to sounds such as a knock at the door or doorbell a habituation program may be appropriate. When appropriate, having the family knock or ring the doorbell each time they enter the home can over time reduce the excitement/arousal of the dog. For the dogs that a knock or doorbell signals visitors have arrived it will become an unreliable indicator to your dog that there is a visitor present and so the barking response should become less intense or more manageable due to a lower level of arousal.

For the first 3-years my Dalmatian would startle and bark each time the air conditioning unit would turn on when we were in the backyard. Over time she got used (habituated) to the sounds to where it no longer elicited her to bark. For her it was not fear, but rather a normal startle reaction that resulted in high arousal. A startle response is involuntary so never attempt to punish or correct such a reaction.


DESENSITIZATION PROGRAM

A desensitization program is a slow repeated systematic exposure to sounds at levels that do not elicit a negative reaction. A desensitization program is for dogs that exhibit fear, phobias, or over-arousal resulting in frustration or other unproductive levels of arousal. The focus here is on sounds that trigger reactions with the goal to have the sounds become inconsequential and no longer provoking a reaction. This is done by the dog building a tolerance over time so they find the sounds inconsequential. This program may not work for dogs with hearing deficits because they may not reliably hear the sounds at the lower levels so they build the immunity or tolerance. Dogs with hearing deficits may only hear the sound when its at a volume that provokes a reaction.

Purpose

  • Slowly desensitize to sounds to eliminate fear and reactivity  

  • Soundtrack

    • Any of soundtracks may be used for this program. For fireworks, thunder, or rain its recommended you to use all of the soundtracks desensitizing each soundtrack completely before starting with the next soundtrack.

    • Dogs that are hyper-sensitive to more than a specific sound (e.g. thunder, fireworks, etc.) will need to be slowly desensitized to multiple sounds one at a time over a long period of time.

A desensitization program should be started when we have the best chance of keeping these sounds under our control. Preferably start months or at least weeks before the dog is naturally exposed to these sounds when they are out of our control like occurs during storm season, or fireworks during popular holidays like New Year Eve or Independence Day. The desensitization soundtracks are approximately 15-30 seconds recording that repeat in a predictable pattern to limit the dog being startled or surprised by the sounds. Through a systematic and repeated exposure and predictability of soundtracks the goal is to build the dog’s immunity to the sounds over time. Much like lifting weights the goal is to not lift anything above the capabilities of the individual. Over doing it or increasing the volume to soon may make the reaction stronger or the dog hyper sensitive to the sounds.

Choose a time and place where your dog feels safe and is lying down and comfortably resting. Sit down lean back and relax (be sure you look relaxed and are breathing) and casually observe your dog. Starting with the volume off slowly raise the volume so it can barely be heard and hold that volume for about 1-minute. At the same time you start to turn up the volume from 0 watch your dog for the faintest indication that the sound has been heard. You may observe the ears move, eyes open, or a head tilt. If you see no indication that your dog has heard the sound slightly raise the volume and hold for another minute and continue in 1-minute increments until you see an indication that your dog has heard the sound. We do not want to see the dog jump, startle, move to another room, or display any signs of concern, distress, or high arousal.  If you do get a startle response or the dog becomes aroused turn the volume off and try again the next day being careful to keep the volume at level the dog can handle and still treat the sound as no consequence. It’s important to keep the volume below the threshold which evokes a reaction.

When you see an indication your dog has heard the sound and they are not showing any signs of concern and have not become activated nor left the room, leave the volume at that level and let the recording continue to play and repeat for a minimum of 4-hours uninterrupted but for the best results let the recording play for 24 hours. The goal at this point is to play the recording at or near this level as many hours as possible for the next 3 days. This needs to be at a level the dog can handle without a negative reaction (below threshold for any level of reactivity) and still treat as inconsequential. For the first 3 days we want repeated exposures to the sound near this baseline volume. Each day you start to play the recording you will need to follow the same program of watching your dog for a response or reaction. Playing the volume at a level “3” yesterday is no guarantee that your dog will give no reaction on level “3” today.

If after three or more days with the recording playing at this low level with the dog giving no response slowly raise the volume a bit more each day being careful not to increase the volume to the extent you provoke a reaction from your dog. It’s important to remember we want a slow repeated systematic exposure to sounds until the dog can treat the sounds as inconsequential at a level they would normally hear the sounds.

Once your dog has no reaction to the sounds at normal levels start to move the speaker to differing rooms or places in the home so the location of the sounds is different. When you do this you will still need to watch your dog to be sure the volume is at a level your dog can handle. If after several days with no response playing the recording from differing places in the home you can now move the speakers outside a window so the sound now originates from outside the home. The final step in the program will be to repeat the process and place your speakers in several outdoor environments like the yard, park, or other locations your dog would normally visit.  

You will usually need to desensitise your dog to other triggers such as sight and smell associations. For example, if you have a dog that suffers from brontophobia (fear of thunderstorms), you may also need to play a strobe light outside your window blinds on a dark evening to simulate the lightning flashes and an air ioniser to simulate the change in positive and negative charged particles in the air. This is incorporated into your programme as soon as the sound part of the programme is completed.” Rogerson, John. The Dog Vinci Code: Unlock the Secrets to Training Your Dog John Blake


COUNTER-CONDITIONING PROGRAM

Counter-conditioning is pairing something desirable with the thing that evokes fear, frustration, reactivity, etc… An example would be to give your dog a special treat every time they heard the scary trash truck with the goal of creating a new pleasant response to the sound of the trash truck.

The first question to ask yourself is before starting a counter-conditioning program is do you want your dog to pay attention to the _____________, or ignore it? If the dog was previously out of control with unproductive high arousal prior to completing a habituation or desensitization program it may not be the best idea to now pair that thing with a reward which could lead to another form of high arousal. But if your dog was previously concerned or frighten by the sound/thing previously it may be a good idea to now pair the concerning thing with something to look forward to.

Prior to turning on the soundtrack prepare or stage the “surprise” reward (toy or treat) so it is ready to give once your dog has heard the soundtrack. Play the soundtrack and then present your dog with the surprise treat to build a positive anticipation between the formerly concerning sound and the surprise treat. The goal is the trash truck would no longer create fear or frustration, and now would result in anticipation that something good will happen when the sound of the trash truck is heard.

Start off by only playing the tape in conjunction with an exciting activity such as feeding or playing with a toy. Make sure you start off with rewards that are fairly low in value – save the better rewards for later in the programme. Continue to play the recording all the time the rewards are being given and stop it immediately after the rewards stop. Within a few days of pairing the rewards with the sounds you should begin to see the dog pleasantly anticipating the reward whenever he hears the sound on the recording. Now begin to take your dog out to various locations and expose him to the sounds on the recording, slowly increasing the value of the rewards you offer.Rogerson, John. The Dog Vinci Code: Unlock the Secrets to Training Your Dog . John Blake.

Problems can occur if the “desirable” thing is presented or displayed before the thing (sound/noise) of concern. You can create the complete opposite of what you had intended if not careful. The “desirable” thing if presented before the concerning sound can become a reliable indicator that the fearful or scary thing is imminent resulting in the desirable thing now eliciting those same negative emotions. If you attempt this program and your dog has no interest in the “desirable” treat they likely are overwhelmed and not feeling safe. In this case stop and begin a desensitization program on another day being careful to not cause any undo stress for your dog. Counter conditioning can work with dogs exhibiting mild concerns or fear. And if this is the case it will work fast. But for dogs experiencing something more than mild concern it’s important to understand that for counter conditioning to take place the dog must feel safe, otherwise it is likely not much more then treat dispensing which the dog may or may not take.


Desensitization & Counter-Conditioning Programs Soundtracks