Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Desensitizing Service Dogs to Loud Sounds

Desensitizing Service Dogs to Loud Sounds

Over the various holidays in the year when frozen turkeys are on sale, we purchase several of them and process them one by one (thaw, cut into meal portions, then refreeze) for the dogs meals (we feed raw).

For the last few years, we have been taking frozen backbones etc and chopping them with hatchet on wood stumps and letting the dogs watch from the inside of the garage with the door open. I used a baby gate or Xpen keep them safely inside but allow them to watch. When we are done, they get to clean up the bits (a real version of "Sprinkles ™" game. LOL!) They made the association with the chopping sounds to food quickly.

More recently, I had less space to freeze so I ended up laying meat on smaller metal pans (muffin tins, aluminum pans etc) to prevent them from freezing into a solid mass. Of course they still stick to the pan and somewhat together so when it comes time to break them apart and place the pieces into bags, I have to drop them on the garage floor. (Warning, the tins do get dented when they are dropped, so get a set of used ones from a second hand store purchased for this purpose).

I started by letting the dogs in the backyard with the back door open and they could watch the (yummy) food being processed just inside the garage door.  This time the open barrier kept them out. I started with the big garage door open to diffuse the sound at first, then later kept it closed. Before each time I dropped the meat tray, I started with a warning cue like "Ready" and then dropped it.

I stopped often at first and let the dogs come clean up the bits before sending them out and dropping again. Over several sessions, the dogs went from being about 30 feet away in the yard to standing almost over me as I drop the trays.

The trick is to go slow, start the dog at a distance that you think they won't react at all (enlist a helper if you need to to walk the dog far enough away), and give the dog frequent breaks. If they show any mild signs of fear, close the door to muffle the sound. This would be a good start for conditioning them to loud sounds they may encounter in life. After a sound, feed a handful of great treats to maintain and generalize the positive association.

The important steps in the process are:
1. Starting the dog at a distance with quieter sounds, then let her approach as they are comfortable.
2. Give her a warning sound before the loud sound occurs.
3. Pair the sound with a high value food or game the dog really enjoys.
4. Give the dog choice if or not she moves closer to the sound.
5. Add the distance back in when increasing the loudness of the sound and let her approach on her own again.
6. Take frequent breaks and do training sessions several days apart to allow the dog to recover if you made the changes too fast.

Do NOT let anyone drop a metal object right behind your dog on a hdd surface for any reason, even when testing as part of an assessment. This is especially important when the dog is in any of the fear periods (7-12 weeks, 6 mos, 11-14 mos, and 2 years). This is unfair to a dog and may actually cause the dog to become fearful of sudden sounds when it was previously not. It is better to make the associations slowly. Ideally, give the dog a warning if at all possible. In real life there are many more things we can predict than those we cannot. The sense of control is important in helping the dogs to deal with loud sounds.

Fireworks, once they have start, or if you know they are scheduled are somewhat predictable, especially if you can see them in the distance as you can see the flare before they bang.
Common unpredictable ones are car backfiring (becoming less common), cars and motorcycles with no mufflers. Thunder is somewhat predictable as it usually occurs after lightening.

Both dogs tend towards some sound sensitivity so if it works for them, it should work for most other dogs.

What other sounds can you predict and not predict?