Sound Desensitization

Overview:

Many dogs are sensitive about particular sounds such as other dogs barking, the door bell, a vacuum cleaner, fireworks, or thunder.  While it makes good evolutionary sense to startle and pay attention, particularly to a new or unusual sound, when that reaction is exaggerated it can be problematic for the humans, the dog, or both.  Interestingly, the most common strategy for helping a dog with a sound sensitivity is essentially the same strategy for preventing sound sensitivities from forming.  Gradual and systematic exposure to a sound, working with low-intensity situations, means we can pair the sound with something positive, and then capture and reward calm and relaxed behavior.

The steps:

  1. Set up:
    Pick one sound to work on.  You will need to be able to control the volume of the sound.  This could mean you will need to start with a recording of that sound (the internet and smart phones make finding or recording sounds in your life very easy).  Other options for controlling volume might be using distance and barriers – like taping a pillow over your doorbell chime and working three rooms away.
    Pick a location and setting in which your dog is already relatively calm and relaxed.  Starting a session with a dog who is already worked up about something will make trying to capture or encourage calm harder for you.
    Pick a reinforcement – treats or food are probably the easiest option.  For a dog with a very intense fear reaction to a sound, try starting with small pieces of very high-value food (stinky cheese, liverwurst, shredded chicken, etc.).
  2. Trigger or play your sound at the lowest possible volume and watch your dog.  For recorded sounds, start with the volume entirely off and then add just one notch to the volume bar.  Watch for any sign your dog can actually detect the sound – even if they are not yet showing off a sensitivity.  This might mean you see an ear twitch, looking toward or away from the sound, tilting the head, licking their lips, or yawning.  The first sign your dog can hear the sound is the right volume to be working at.  If you see something more – whining, barking, pacing, or full-blown reaction we need to start with an even lower volume.
  3. Pair exposure to that sound with reward.  Because the volume is so low, you should be able to see your dog still being relatively calm and relaxed.  You are rewarding for that calm/relaxed behavior in the presence of the sound.  You can be a little picky and choose to reward the most relaxed moments and avoid rewarding slightly more animated behavior from your dog, but if your volume is set correctly, most of the time you should be seeing calm and relaxed rather than agitated or animated.
  4. When your dog shows only calm behavior (and seems entirely un-phased by the sound), increase the volume by the smallest amount possible.  This could mean increasing the volume by one notch, or by cracking one of the three doors between you and the vacuum cleaner, for example.  Again – watch for any signs your dog can detect the sound but if you see a more significant increase in stress, you’ve gone too far.  Repeat step 3 and reward for calm and relaxed at this new volume and then increase the volume again.
  5. Training sessions can be short or longer – as long as your dog is not experiencing much stress it is ok to give them a longer exposure to the sound.
  6. At the start of a new training session it is normal to see some regression.  For this reason, always start with your volume very low or off and increase slowly until the first time to see your dog detect or be impacted by the sound.  If in your previous training session your dog got to the 5th volume notch, today you may still need to start down at the 2nd volume notch.  It is likely, however, that you may be able to increase the volume more quickly in each training session because you spot calm and relaxed behavior faster at lower volumes.  We also all have bad days.  So if today your dog needs to work at a lower volume that you’d been the last week, try not to be discouraged.  Work at the level where you can get calm and relaxed.  That is the level your dog is prepared to handle on that day or in that session.  Turning the volume up any higher just means building in stress rather than relaxation – and you will be making more work for yourself.
  7. At any point, if you see a jump in the level of your dog’s stress, back up.  It is always temping to see how quickly you can increase the volume.  Trust me that the fastest way to desensitize a dog to a sound is by working slowly and until you are entirely convinced your dog is really feeling calm and comfortable at any giving volume.  If you move to fast you may be able to have the volume turned up high, but if you are still seeing stress then you’ve not actually fixed the problem and you will likely, eventually, see regression.  You are conditioning an emotional response to the sound.  That means you are actually helping your dog to FEEL good or calm about a sound.  Feelings take time to develop.  And if there is some innate stress about the sound that you are working against, expect it will take time and a lot of practice at low levels before you can break the cycle and have the dog only feel good feelings while hearing the sound.

Resources:

A nice video reviewing this process: