It was rare for me not to hear a bark when I rang the doorbell. She was very friendly without being over-excited and didn’t appear to be a nervous dog at all.
The eight-year-old terrier has been scared of bangs outside the house since they took her in at two years old. Her fears of bangs, gunshots and bird-scarers in particular, are unfortunately getting worse.
Her owners are the kindest of people and have done everything they can think of. Jessie is a very happy little dog in every other respect. She loves people. She loves the grandchildren and she’s not a barker.
Jessie’s fears of gunshots and bangs are worse in the winter and after dark.
Her fearfulness is worst in open places with lots of sky. The lady likened her to Chicken Licken, afraid that the sky might fall in!
People often use food after the event. When there has been a distant bang and Jessie has reacted, they feed her afterwards, thinking they are rewarding her for calming down. This is missing the point.
If sufficiently scared, the dog won’t eat anyway. In order to reduce her fear, the food is used to help her to feel differently about the bangs while they happen.
How can they achieve this?
The only way is to actually pair food with the bangs. A bang triggering food gives the bang a whole different meaning.
Counter-conditioning a dog to noises she’s scared of is a slow and difficult job and Jessie’s fears need to be worked on at a level where she is aware of a sound but can still easily cope with it.
What they will do is to build up Jessie’s resilience. They need also to prepare her for the possibility of uncontrolled bangs.
Jessie is hesitant to go out to toilet after dark so, before they let her out, they can already have laced the garden with food. They can associate the garden after dark with something positive and reassuring.
Often she will refuse to walk, particularly when it’s dark or cold, fearing the possibility of a distant bang – something her humans won’t even hear. They can lace the front path with food in advance.
They will also give Jessie choice.
To give her a degree of freedom and choice they will increase the length of the lead. In open spaces where they dare not let her off for fear she may bolt for home, they will use a long line.
A walk where she’s scared is worse than useless anyway. If she turns to go back into the house, they will let her do so.
In order to build up resilience, the real work will be in setting up situations where they can have control. They have had little success with a DVD of bangs but this is because they haven’t used it to desensitise and counter-condition her. They just played it and Jessie was too worried even when it was at its softest.
They now know how to work with this to help Jessie.
One reason for Jessie’s spookiness outside after dark may be the hum of cars on the nearby dual carriageway. This is worse at night when the sound probably carries more clearly.
This gave an easy example of how to work on desensitising and counter-conditioning her.
To desensitise they find the distance from the road where Jessie is aware of the hum of traffic but not unduly worried. They now keep to this distance until she is so relaxed with it that they can move a few steps closer. She will then get used to that. Over time they can very gradually decrease the distance between themselves and the road, always watching her body language to make sure she’s not ‘over threshold’.
Counter-conditioning is the icing on the cake.
Now they add something Jessie loves at the same time as she is aware of the traffic. In her case this will be food. Not only will she get nearer the traffic faster, she will also actually begin to have positive emotions about the noise.
The bummer is that real life gets in the way. If while work is being done she is suddenly subjected to something like a gunshot, it sets things back. This can’t be avoided unless she were never to go out for a walk, and anyway she can even hear bangs from her own garden.
The difficulty with working with sudden noises is that something uncontrolled like a gunshot is sure to happen.
So, they will immediately turn for home if Jessie is scared. With the long line they can give her more choice.
If over time Jessie’s confidence is built up at home, both with a DVD or downloaded sounds and sounds out in the garden, she should have more leeway to cope when out.
Whatever happens, the gunshot sound or the bang must trigger food. She will have learned with the work at home that a bang triggers food.
It may be they will need to abandon all walks near home for a while and pop Jessie in the car, going to somewhere that has no associations with bangs and gunshots.
She is a different dog in the summer when the sky is light, the weather is warm and there is little danger of gunshots.
Here is a great webinar from the great Patricia McConnell: Building Resilience in Dogs