• The SCDT Team

Behaviour modification for the treatment of noise phobias and separation anxiety

Behaviour modification for the treatment of noise phobias and separation anxiety

Introduction

Noise phobias and separation are often linked, with many (but not all) dogs suffering from both to some degree or another. Noise Phobias and separation anxiety can also be linked to pain and discomfort, so an exceptionally in depth veterinary check should be carried out.

Should any form of discomfort, illness or pain be found it is urgent that these are resolved or medicated to a level where you and your vet are certain they are not causing your dog any discomfort. Behaviour modification can begin immediately but is unlikely to be as successful as required until all medical issues are resolved. The issues of separation anxiety and noise sensitivity can sometimes be solved completely just by resolving underlying pain issues so this should not be underestimated.

In mild cases this behavioural adjustment plan should, with a high level of owner commitment, reduce your dogs levels of stress and anxiety that their quality of life improves dramatically. In medium to severe cases it is not unusual that your dog may need some help from veterinary pharmaceuticals, a list of these are listed below and your trainer will advise you if they feel it is necessary and will be happy to converse with your vet about prescribing medication. Medication alone, without the commitment of you - the owner - to the behaviour modification process is unlikely to yield the desired result of a calm, relaxed dog when left or presented with noises.

Behaviour Modification Plan

Firstly we must avoid your dog being exposed to fearful situations such as being left alone or noises which predictably trigger a fearful reaction because any exposure reinforces the anxiety. Whilst this may not be 100% possible the fewer reactions your dog has the quicker they will recover.


This is because each time they react it repeats the fear response making it more ingrained, it increases stress making it harder for your dog to cope moving forward, the coping mechanism your dog displays is also rewarding to them because they produce the feeling of relief and safety and thus reinforces how they should behave when they hear a sound or are left alone.

Next we will teach the dog some basic voice control and obedience exercises to increase its confidence and enhance communication between dog and owner. Behaviours to be practiced each day include sit stay, down stay, send to bed, hand touch, an enrichment activity, new response to trigger training (see later explanation). The training should be relaxed and not stress the dog, enough reinforcement and small enough approximations should help create positive, happy daily sessions.

Set a routine of feeding, resting, activities and playing times. Spend 15 minutes per day interacting with your dog doing enrichment activities/ playing, Spend 15 minutes twice per day doing the training laid out below, Spend 15 minutes per day massaging, cuddling and being close to your dog. Try to keep these sessions predictable and at regular times. To create independence try to also have times where your dog is not the centre of attention and must settle without you. If your dog struggles with this speak to your trainer.

Commence a programme of desensitisation to change the dog’s associations with being alone.

To begin with we will repeat your leaving routine when you are not leaving to decouple departure clues. This means things like putting your shoes on and then not leaving the house, picking up your car keys and then putting them down again, watching TV dressed up as if you were going out. These must be repeated until cues that tell the dog you are leaving no longer cause a reaction in your dog and your dog can remain calm and relaxed when these things are repeated.

Starting to learn to be left, we will start with very short periods of exposure or time alone and reward relaxed behaviour.


This may start by you simply standing the other side of a baby gate whilst your dog enjoys a kong or practicing closing the toilet door when you go to the bathroom. Slowly you would start to be further away from the baby gate or start to shut other doors you go through around the house so your dog cannot follow you in to every room in the house all the time. Starting by teaching your dog to be alone whilst knowing you are still in the house is the first step.

Keep the time periods your dog is left short and only increase the time a few minutes at a time and only if your dog is relaxed. You may need to stay near your dog near the baby gate to create this to begin with or even leave the door open a crack but put a barrier in the way so your dog cannot get to you but is not panicking about being left. By adding lovely things and keeping the time and distance short, repeating a couple of times a day you will slowly be able to increase the time and distance from your dog until you can leave them with things to do in a separate room to you inside your house. Lovely things will include stuffed kong, scatter feeding tasty treats, lick mats filled with pate or wet foods, chews, bones etc.

Once internal doors have been mastered it is easier to work on external doors and leaving the house. The use of scatter feeding, lick mats, tasty chew and kong can accelerate this process as the dog pairs how nice it is to be in another room whilst still having the security that you are around even if the dog cant access you immediately.

You should also practice your sit and down stays to the extent that you can build from a simple 10 second stay to an out of sight stay where you can leave your dog in a stay leave the room and close the door behind you, wait several minutes and then return.


Now your dog can be left comfortably with a nice distraction for 30min then we will be ready to repeat the process on external doors, ideally we would start with a back or side door that you don’t regularly use to actually go out so that your dog has less of an existing stress response to it. Sadly this may end up with you hiding in the shed or car for up to 30 min at a time. During this process you can also walk round your property and re-enter via the other entrances you might have.


Once you can leave the house for 30min from any door then you can start to increase the amount of time you can leave your dog for, keep the increments that you are leaving your dog small only increase the time a few minutes at a time. This should have created departure routines that are less arousing and stressful. Now you are able to leave your dog when you set up leaving your dog as above try to ignore the dog for 30 min before departure and 30 min upon return. Only greet your dog on return once it is exhibiting calm, relaxed behaviour.

Commence a programme of desensitisation to change the dog’s associations with hearing noises.

For noise phobias we will start with our newly trained behaviours (sit stay, down stay, on your bed, heel, hand touches etc) and behaviours the dog already finds exceptionally rewarding such a cuddles and tummy rubs. The owner should create a noise so quiet that the dog doesn’t react at all and continues with the trained or enjoyable behaviour without any reaction at all. If this is successful then the noise in question is going to be used to cue a new behaviour which we want the dog to do when it hears a noise in the future, suggestions are middle, heel, send to bed.

Once this has been taught a new very quiet (non stress inducing) noise will also be introduced as a cue for the same behaviour. Once 10 different quiet and non stress inducing cues have been paired with the new coping mechanism (middle, heel, bed etc) then the volume on the cues can be slowly increased.

This procedure will also need to be done in several different environments. Initially this should be each room in the house the dog is allowed, then the garden and then on regular walking locations.

Teach the dog to be relaxed in situations in which it was previously fearful and reward relaxed behaviour. A favourite rug, toy or music can become a relaxation cue. This can be linked with a distinctive smell such as lavender oil, aromatherapy oil or perfume, remember dogs sense of smell is very sensitive so only a small amount is needed. This relaxation is best done without food and simply using touch, comfort, planned and managed lack of noise. Tellington Touch, Massage and just sitting calmly with the dog can be useful.

Reward relaxed behaviour with attention. Do not reinforce anxious behaviour by reassuring or patting the dog when it shows clinical signs of fear. In cases when dogs have created obsessive compulsive behaviours and phobic behaviours any reinforcement (any attention) of the behaviour can reinforce the reaction. Access to a safe place should always be allowed but ideally the owner would ignore the dog or leave the room. Your trainer will advise you if you should be ignoring the dog or leaving the room. If the dogs fear based behaviours stop when you leave the room and he/she returns to normal then there is a degree of learnt habitual behaviour. This does not mean it doesn’t stress the dog simply that the owners presence is or has been reinforcing the behaviour.

Set a routine of feeding, resting, activities and playing times. Spend 15 minutes per day interacting with your dog doing enrichment activities/ playing, Spend 15 minutes twice per day doing the training laid out below, Spend 15 minutes per day massaging, cuddling and being close to your dog. Try to keep these sessions predictable and at regular times. To create independence try to also have times where your dog is not the centre of attention and must settle without you. If your dog struggles with this speak to your trainer.

Do not punish, as it is not an effective or reliable way of changing behaviour and many dogs become more anxious.

Remember to ignore stereotypic behaviours to avoid accidentally reinforcing the behaviour.


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