DESENSITISING A FEARFUL DOG
This information describes the steps required to desensitise your dog to distressing stimuli. These may be thunderstorms, loud noises, being left alone or strangers.
Desensitisation involves the gradual exposure to low levels of the stimulus, and 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 'Creating Stability and Security'.
Once your dog will reliably perform these exercises for you, you can move on to teaching the dog to remain relaxed in the presence of the stimulus. This may be exposure at a low level, for example, playing a thunderstorm tape 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 can gradually be increased.
If we combine these episodes of being exposed to the anxiety-inducing stimulus with something the dog really enjoys, then he will progress more quickly. Your 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 program 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. There are some general principles evident in the following example.
Desensitisation to being left alone
Imagine a dog called Fido. Fido adores dried liver treats, but from now on, the ONLY time he will ever receive this treat is as a reward for being calm in his owner's absence. Fido remains quite settled if left alone in the car but is destructive if left alone in the back yard. Fido's owner puts a blue rug (his relaxation cue, as described in 'Helping your dog cope alone') on the seat of the car and asks Fido to sit on it.
She leaves him alone for five seconds (with the door open) and rewards him with a piece of liver, as he remains calm and relaxed. She repeats the process leaving him for 10, 20, 40, 10, 30, then 60 seconds, rewarding him at the end of each interval. She then repeats the process but closes the car door each time she leaves him.
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 liver bit 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 daycare" 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 or other 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 tape of thunderstorm noise is playing. Start with the tape playing very quietly then gradually increasing the volume over time.
Note that 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 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 with and then reassess the situation.