It's a terrible thing to see a dog in fear. Especially when they can't figure out the location of the thing that is causing the fear.
Being scared of loud noises is one of the most challenging behaviors/mindsets to change for dogs. How do you help them turn this negative association to a positive one? This is what this blog post is all about!
So read on to find the answer.
Before getting to it, let me preface this with my own experience. I've personally had two dogs that were terrified of loud noises.
One of them, I actually caused and worsened by taking free advice from someone who wasn't a dog trainer… at least not a professional dog trainer. I learned a valuable lesson through that experience and fortunately, with the help from someone who did know what they were doing, I was able to rectify the matter in a couple of weeks (the other took a few months.)
Every dog will be different.
Here's how I did it:
Change the dog's mind from negative reaction to loud noises to positive expectation of loud noises.
Think about a time when you weren't feeling well and you had to go to work to meet a deadline. Or you were sick on a trip and out of your comfort zone. It sucks and compounds the stress level.
Even if our dogs could tell us that they weren't feeling well most of the time I don't think they would. They are extremely stoic animals that will hide any amount of discomfort (especially if that would result in them missing out on some fun!)
Some of the most aggressive, fearful, ‘headstrong’, uncooperative dogs I've worked with have had underlining health issues that once addressed made training and understanding each other 1 million times easier.
If you are feeding your dog kibble you can add in coconut oil, a raw egg, vegetables, and products such as Fido’s Flora from The Adored Beast which will help your dogs health overall.
Fresh Food makes a world of difference in how your dog feels.
When they are feeling good and thriving physically, they're much better able to handle the stress of things like fireworks and other loud noises.
2. Food Motivation
If you want your dog to get over being scared of loud noises we need them to be food motivated and excited to work for their food before we introduce treats.
As much as your dog likes to be pet, snuggled, talked to like a baby, and get belly rubs, they don't need those to survive. Food on the other hand, they do need. And most of the time they want it.
But if your dog is fed processed kibble it takes a very long time for them to digest a single serving (some articles suggest 16+ hours per serving.)
Personally I've seen this when I fed the dog supper at 5 PM and the following day after running around and drinking a bunch of water the dog throws up last night’s dinner and the kibble is still in its original circular shape… Crazy!
So how do we get our dogs to be food motivated? With Intermitted fasting (IF.) It’s amazing for your dog… (and you- but that’s for another time.)
What is IF?
It’s when you remove snacking and give the digestive tract a break from digesting food for an extended period of time. This can be quite easy when you factor in sleep.
How do we safely do this with our dogs? The simplest way is to only feed them once a day. That way, they have enough time to digest the food they are given.
There are plenty of other awesome benefits to intermitted fasting besides using it as a tool to pair the negative sound to a positive one. Benefits like the production of ketones, rebuilding of the stomachs micro biome, and of course the ability to get and keep your dog’s attention when teaching them new commands or tricks!
Specific Exercise-Action Plan to De-Sensitize Your Dog to Loud Noises
3. Low-Level Exposure
If your dog is scared of fireworks they are probably also scared of gunshots, cars backfiring, or any other sound that would've been on the 1960s Batman series (Bang, Pop, Pow!). The tool I used to replicate this at a low level is a cap gun. After much hunting around for this kids’ toy, the only place I could find one besides Amazon was at the dollar store. In order to prepare for the next step, purchase several packs of caps to go with the gun.
Note: You will need the help of another person to go through the process.
Now, here’s what to do:
A) Have Food in your pocket or in a training pouch
B) Have your dog on leash, with a collar that they can't pull out of (or use a slip leash for this).
Have your helper go to the other end of the house where they can still hear you (or call them on cell phone), or, if your home is too small to successfully accomplish the necessary distance, close all the windows in the home, go outside with your dog and have your helper shoot the cap gun into a clothing closet (to absorb some of the noise.)
(You might want to tell your neighbours that you’re going to be doing some training with a cap gun lol.)
C) Now that you are both in place, count down from 5 to 1, getting your helper to fire the cap gun after you say “1.”
D) When you say 1 you are going to drop a handful of food on the ground and observe your dog.
If your dog raises their head and goes back to eating the food after hearing the shot than you’ll know they are not bothered by the sound.
If the dog raises their head and does not go back to eating the remainder of the food, have the person go further away or close more doors in between your locations and play with the dog until they are relaxed or come back to the exercise at a later time and the dog is frisky/ playful mood.
E) If your dog wasn't bothered by the sound then you can signal the person to come in closer (5-10 feet).
F) Repeat the process, counting down from 5 to 1, dropping food and shooting the cap gun and having your helper move in closer and closer until you notice the dog starts to lift their head and pay a little too much attention to the sound.
When this happens, the session is over. You can also end the exercise before they ever show any signs of paying attention to the sound. Whatever you feel most comfortable with.
The more you practice this the faster your dog will associate the popping sound of the cap gone with the positive reward of food. If this issue is your area of focus or you want to get results quickly, you can make this the only way that your dog gets his food. If you do this, it won't take very long for them to change their mind about a popping sound because the food motivation will be so high.
How I applied this in my own life:
When my dog Rush developed this phobia of sounds we practiced this 10 to 25 times a day using small portions of food each time. We did 1-8 shots per round of training.
If you start this sound desensitizing process, add a good enough distance with a low enough sound (like the cap gun) so that your dog isn’t scared and gradually becomes accustomed to the sound. When you take this approach, your dog will be happy to work for the food!
Also, don't panic if there is a setback and the dog doesn't want the food. Just be patient - they will come around.
5. Change the Sound and the Location
To ensure that your dog is truly getting comfortable with the sounds, change the location of where you practice. That way, they don’t associate the sound (and safety) with just one place.
Same goes for the volume of the noise: gradually increase it and switch to other noises over time.
There's no rush in this process and therefore make sure your dog is extremely comfortable with the low level shot before you move onto something louder, like a starter pistol. The order of sounds I typically use is Cap Gun, starter pistol, shotgun, rifle, firework, big bang firework.
You do what works for you - Go at your own pace and enjoy the benefits of having a confident dog in any environment!