When I started competing with my dog Chester in agility trials, I was pleased that he was not concerned about the sounds around him. Dogs barked, people yelled, the teeter banged, but Chester didn’t even react to these sounds. He was unfazed until someone got a Master Agility Champion title and everyone started clapping. The commotions startled Chester and, as any good herding dog worth his salt, he started barking, somehow trying to control all the chaos. This was not a desirable reaction for an agility dog who would be spending almost every weekend in that environment, so I knew that I needed to stop him from such a reaction. Furthermore, I needed to stop it quickly, before it turned into a learned behavior. So, every day, I would clap once or twice, praise him and give him a treat. I’d also clap when he came into the kitchen for his meals. I would great him with one or two claps of my hands when I got home from work. Soon, my husband and I were able to clap at the same time as much as we wanted and Chester would wait happily for a treat. He wouldn’t get nervous or bark, he learned that clapping meant good things were coming. I kept this up at agility trials on weekends, and when he next heard the spectators clapping, he looked at me and wagged his tail, waiting for a treat. There was no barking, no agitated behavior, just a relaxed dog, unconcerned with the chaos around him.
Many dogs have or develop sound sensitivity. Some dogs worry about thunder, some panic when you slam a door, some even stress when you sneeze or have the hick-ups. Speaking with a friend recently, she mentioned that her dog worried when someone coughed or made any other “biological” sounds, such as burping. As with Chester, you can desensitize your dog to any noise – provided your dog hasn’t already developed a phobia. Sound sensitivities are healthy fears which have gotten a bit out of control. Phobias are irrational fears that may not respond to desensitization. Or, if they do, it will take much longer, and you must be much more careful when dealing with them. Let’s leave how to deal with phobias for another day.
For now, let’s deal with healthy fears. Identify the sound or sounds that cause your dog to overreact. Get a recording of that sound. (You can find pretty much any sound on the internet.) With your dog near you, play the sound a second or two at a low volume. Have some high value treats in your hand. While playing the sound, give him a treat. Don’t wait until your dog starts to panic, give him the treat immediately. Do this a few times a day. After a few days, play the sound a little louder and/or for a couple more seconds. Slowly increase the volume and length. Do this until there is little or no reaction from your dog when the sound is played at a normal volume for an extended period of time. As with all training, desensitizing requires patience and consistency. You can also turn this training into a game or trick. While speaking to that same friend, I suggested she buy a whoopie cushion and teach her dog to put his paws on it to have it make noise. This will also serve to teach the dog that he has control over the sound and, thus, will give him self-confidence. Be creative with your training and keep it fun. As always, give treats freely and praise profusely.