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Q. My dog is very jumpy and barks at any little sound. Is it possible to desensitize him to strange noises?
A. Unfortunately, many dogs develop sound sensitivities that can quickly graduate from only reacting to a couple of scary sounds to reacting anxiously and barking at any sound that seems out of place. Dogs with sound sensitivity can even become hypervigilant in the confines of their own homes.
Sound sensitivity may be tied to other conditions, such as separation anxiety. A trip to your veterinarian, who can diagnose the problem and recommend appropriate ways to address it, is an excellent place to start. Training alone, with the help of an animal behaviorist or a certified professional dog trainer, can often address noise anxiety in dogs. Depending on the severity of the situation, anti-anxiety medication may be used in conjunction with a reward-based training program.
The first thing to do is pinpoint the sounds that your dog reacts to most often. Loud booming noises, for instance, often scare dogs, including fireworks, thunder and noises related to construction work. The more you can isolate the specific cause of your dog’s anxiety, the easier it will be to change your canine’s reaction to unfamiliar noises.
Some dogs start out with very specific noise anxieties, which then generalize to include a wide variety of unfamiliar noises. I once worked with a dog who was originally only afraid of thunder, but over time, his noise anxiety expanded to include rumble strips on the road, the sound of things dropping on the ground and even noises that wouldn't scare the majority of pets, such as the sound of a dog tag clinking against a water dish.
You can begin to desensitize dogs to noises by controlling the overall volume of the upsetting noise. Trainer Victoria Stillwell recently paired up with Through a Dog’s Ear to create a CD that helps owners desensitize pooches to strange sounds, such as thunderstorms. Start by playing the music at a low level, while giving your dog a treat, so it associates something positive with the noise (known as counterconditioning). Over time, the volume can be gradually increased as long as your dog stays comfortable and relaxed.
Along the same lines, you can desensitize your dog to the sound of a vacuum cleaner, for example, by turning the machine on in another room and shutting the door. You then gradually move the vacuum cleaner closer, while simultaneously offering your pet palatable treats.
Sometimes dogs can develop a hypervigilance to sounds in the home and react with barking out of boredom and because they have an overload of energy. I was recently working with a dog who reacted anxiously to noises that she heard outside of the home. By simply upping her exercise routine, giving her food puzzles to master and employing reward-based obedience training, her noise sensitivity decreased by 95 percent.
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