Small Steps Towards a Final Goal
This information sheet describes the steps required to desensitise your dog to the particular stimulus he finds distressing.
Desensitising dogs to particular events
This stimulus may be thunderstorms, loud noises such as fireworks or the recycling collection truck. It could even be being left alone.
Desensitisation involves the gradual exposure to low levels of the stimulus while at the same time encouraging and rewarding relaxed behaviour like sitting and staying.
Desensitisation is part of a long term strategy that when successfully completed will mean you will be able to leave your dog alone for extended periods or he will tolerate thunderstorms or other loud noises without any anxiety or undesirable behaviour.
The first step is to provide a clear rule structure for your dog and to encourage him to be calm and relaxed in a non-stressful setting. This is described in Providing Stability and Security.
Once your dog will reliably perform these exercises for you it can then move on to remaining relaxed in the presence of the stimulus. This may be exposure at a low level, for example, playing a thunderstorm MP3 (available from BHVG) very quietly or only departing to the next room for a very short time. As your dog progresses, the period he can be left alone or the volume of the thunderstorm tape can gradually be increased.
If we couple these episodes of being exposed to the anxiety-inducing stimulus with something the dog really enjoys then he will progress quicker because the dog will associate your departure or the loud noises with something positive, rather than only the negative aspects which have been overwhelming until now.
The specific programme for each dog will vary because the environment that your dog finds challenging and the rewards he will value the most are unique for him. However the general principles are evident from the following example:
Desensitisation to being left alone: an example
"Fido" adores Vets Best Rewards (available from BHVG). From now on, the ONLY time he will ever receive this is as a reward for being calm in his owner’s absence.
"Fido" remains quite settled if left alone in the car but has been very destructive if left alone in the back yard.
"Fido’s" owner puts a blue rug, his relaxation cue on the seat of the car (as described in Helping your dog cope to be alone) and asks "Fido" to sit on it.
She leaves him alone for five seconds (with the door open) and rewards him with a Vets Best Reward as he remains calm and relaxed. She repeats the process for 10, 20, 40, 10, 30, then 60 seconds. She then closes the door as she leaves him and starts the process again.
She notes that when leaving him for 40 seconds with the door shut he looks slightly anxious- his muscles are a little tense and he is breathing slightly more quickly. She does NOT reward him for this but goes back to leaving him for 10 seconds with the door open. He is relaxed again so is rewarded with a Vets Best reward and the session finishes on a good note. It is very important that every training session should end on a positive note.
Gradually, she works up to 2, then 5 then 7 then 10 minutes and so forth. Then the procedure can be carried out in gradually more challenging environments such as the house or yard and food rewards given intermittently, rather than after every good response.
Once "Fido" is relaxed and calm for 30 minutes on his own, he will generally be settled for any extended period alone.
Your dog will progress more quickly if it does not experience any episodes of anxiety during the period of desensitisation. If you have to leave him alone for a time during the desensitisation period consider a "dog-sitter" or "doggie day-care" and some of the suggestions in Helping your dog cope with being alone.
Certain events in your dog’s life may also trigger a relapse. This may be anything your dog finds traumatic such as moving house, a member of the household departing, the death of another pet and so forth.
Desensitisation to thunderstorms and loud noises
Using the same principles as described for "Fido" we can desensitise your dog to thunderstorms or other loud noises. Instead of rewarding "Fido" for being relaxed while alone, we will reward for relaxation while a thunderstorm MP3 (available from BHVG).
Starting with the MP3 playing very quietly then gradually increasing the volume over time. It is important to note that with thunderstorm fears and phobias it may not be just the noise that stimulates the behaviour, lightening and ozone may contribute to the fearful response and in these cases the thunderstorm tapes will not be as effective as in cases where the stimulus is the noise alone.
Progress will be hampered in dogs with noise or thunderstorm fears and phobias if the dogs are exposed to these during the desensitisation process so it is better to try thunderstorm desensitisation before the thunderstorm season.
These exercises require time and patience but have been shown to be effective in most cases of separation anxiety and phobias. Some dogs will experience severe anxiety or panic under certain circumstances. These individuals can benefit from the use of anxiety-reducing medications such as Clomicalm which assist them in learning more appropriate responses in a given situation.
Behaviour modification takes time and effort and can be a slow process. Dedicate at least a four week period to start and then assess the situation. If you are having difficulty with any of the programmes please don’t hesitate to contact BHVG.