After an initial uncertainty she was friendly, if reserved, but throughout the evening it was like she kept hearing sounds that no human could hear. She is constantly ill at ease, looking to hide or escape upstairs.
Five-year-old Chocolate Labrador Poppy was a confident puppy. She often accompanied her farmer owner and was well accustomed to bangs and bird-scarers from the start. Then, at over two years of age, she changed. This may have started with fireworks. Since then she has been steadily becoming more scared of bangs. Her fear of sounds includes heavy rain and household appliances.
Often she will refuse to go out at all – not even into the garden to toilet at night-time. Each morning she will happily go out to the car – daily she is driven to the parent’s farm where she spends the day with another dog. The company of the parents’ bouncy dog doesn’t appear to give her any more confidence.
Some walks go really well – but she is unpredictable. Happy to run to the car, she often won’t walk past it. Even if the walk starts okay, most often she will go on strike after a very short distance, or else she will refuse to go in a certain direction. Without the dog’s superb sense of hearing we can’t tell exactly what it is that is upsetting her but they are sure it’s sounds of some sort.
Until recently the man used to carry her down the lane as a way to get her started on a walk. If there is any hint of a noise, a distant slamming car door for instance, she panics and freezes.
All this makes the owners anxious – as it would. Their own anxiety won’t be helping. It means they are trying too hard to get her to go out, even into the garden, so in a converse sort of way, with all the lobbing food outside and encouragement, she is being reinforced for her reluctance. It’s not in any way addressing the cause of the problem – her fear.
It is very likely that things build up in this way: she may just cope with the first sound or bang. Then, there will be another sound and then another, and each time she becomes more stressed. She then starts to pace, looking to hide if in the house, or pulling or bolting in the direction of home if out – and once this led her across a busy main road.
Confidence-building must start at home. The earlier they can spot and deal with any signs of unease the better. Fear does certain chemical things to the body, and the more of the chemicals that flood in, the less responsive the dog will be to any desensitisation. Caught early enough, as soon as she starts to spook, she will learn to associate the distant noise that only she can hear with something good – food.
They can set up controlled situations to work on at home with sound CDs and soft bangs coming from other rooms, again associating bangs and sounds with food or fun. With sufficient work and patience she should eventually no longer be scared of bangs.
Lacing the environment by scattering food is very effective as it can teach her that outside is a wonderful place. This will need to start in the garden with the door open so she has an escape route.
Conditioning her to come for food when she hears a bang will require multiple repetitions over a long time. It requires working at a level where she is aware of the sound but still able to think and to eat which can mean putting a halt to normal walks.
This is the biggest challenge for them, avoiding things that send Poppy into a panic for the foreseeable future, while they work on desensitising her.
Nearly two months later – my latest update on Poppy’s progress: “Just thought I would give you a quick update. We have now done a few walks and Poppy has been so much better….. She has heard several bangs in each walk and barely batted an eyelid!! Amazing! They are not overly loud but enough that she would have spooked before. Yesterday on a track some off-road motor bikes and a quad bike passed us and she stopped dead and did not want to carry on (she did not shake though I noted), I played running backwards and forwards and doing recall until she ran past the spot where she had stopped and carried on the walk perfectly happy! It is so nice being able to walk her again and be quite confident that she will actually complete the walk! I am amazed that such small changes have made such a difference! My neighbour even saw her this evening and said she is a different dog! She does still have a wobble occasionally if she hear something like a neighbour bang their bin lid shut outside but she is still very much a different dog!
NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Poppy, which is why I don’t go into all exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good, particularly where aggression of any kind is involved. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).