Thunder and fireworks and skateboards, oh my! Addressing irrational fears in our pups.
Desensitizing Our Dogs To Stimuli
We live in a complex, loud, busy and over-whelming human world and sometimes our dogs may become anxious, worried or over-whelmed when they hear or see things that they cannot understand, that are frightening to them or that they aren't sure how to react to. Some pets will be more sensitive than others, some won't have any worries at all!
When our pets show fearful behaviors triggered by stimuli, we can begin to work on this by slowly and positively introducing or re-introducing those sounds or sights in a slow, calm, controlled environment. The younger and earlier the better. As these fears progress, it can become more complex and deep-rooted and take longer to reverse and traumatic experiences.
Remember, this is about our dogs perception, not ours. They don't know how to rationalize!
Thunder and fireworks, ahhhhhh! There are 2 ways to go about working on reducing ghe concern of and reaction to these various triggers.
1) To Simulate the trigger and begin to work on desensitizing them at home:
Let's start having them listen to or watch VERY low YouTube clips of these "scary things" in short, stress-free sessions.
Set up in a calm, quiet room and have lots of VERY yummy treats. These treats can be lunch meat, cheese, chicken, salmon, apple, carrot, blueberry or other favorite snacks. We want them in very tiny chunks, the size of a pea. This way we can give a LOT of treats, without filling them up.
Reward them for simple cues before the sound comes on, to build up her confidence and focus on you. This can be sit, down, touch, watch me, shake or anything they're good at.
Have the sound or video clip at a very low level for 30 seconds, keep asking them for known cues such as focus/touch/down with lots of calm positive praise. Give frequent treats and praise for about 1 minute.
Turn up the volume a few small notches, repeat praise and treats for 1 minute.
Turn up a bit more, repeat for 1 minute.
Once you reach a volume that you're unable to keep their focus, turn the volume down a few notches, praise them and end on a good note.
Repeat this exercise once a day, 1 trigger per day, for up to 5 minutes per day.
Always start back at "zero" each time when working on any stimuli.
Pick 5 of the sounds that your pup gets worried about the most to work on 1 different stimuli per day.
1) To work on desensitizing the trigger while you're out in the real world:
We will learn how to observe a variety of environmental stimuli from a calm distance.
For these exercises, we want to leave the house fully prepared. We will want to have:
1) A treat pouch with at least 30 very high value treats.
2) A comfortable collar or harness, a nylon or braided leash
3) A few extra minutes of time during our outing that we can dedicate to this exercise
What to do:
Step 1: Most importantly, we want to find at what distance from the stimuli, is our dog able to watch and observe while also being comfortable enough to focus on us and work on their cues like sit, touch, focus, down and watch. If they can't focus on us and our cues, and won't even take a treat- we're way too close!
Once we know how close we can be, we want to stand there and just be still. Let them watch and observe and every few seconds, ask for a focus and easy cue, give a high value reward and then ignore them and be calm again. After a few of these, we will add step 2.
STEP 2: The next step is to say "Yes" and give a treat at the moment our dogs notices and looks at any stimuli that has been problematic in the past. This could be birds, dogs, cars, skateboards, bicycles, men with beards, trash bags blowing in the wind, umbrellas etc.
We continue to give the verbal "Yes" and treat at the exact moment they look. Repeat this until they seem to look at triggers and wait for the treat. This can take only a few repetitions or this can take a few days to get to that point. We cannot rush or short-cut this particular part of the process.
When will you know you're ready for step 3? When your pups look at the stimuli and seem to be staring at them just to see if you'll give them a treat.
STEP 3: Now, we will switch up the rules of the game. Instead of rewarding them for looking AT the trigger, we will now wait a few seconds after they look at the trigger, we want to wait until the moment that they look back at US to see where their treat is. In this moment, we say "Yes!" and give the treat.
From this point forward, we will now ONLY give the treat if and when they look at US. We have now trained them that we are more interesting than any stimuli they were once concerned about. Tah dah!
Helpful calming products can be found HERE