Then and Now: Sasha’s Journey

Sasha's first day February 5th 2016

Sasha’s first day February 5th 2016

Sasha three months later (May 5th 2016)

Sasha three months later (May 5th 2016)

 Those of you following Sasha’s saga may remember she came to us in February frightened of ANY loud or unusual sounds. Clicker training in particular was an ordeal for her, so I turned to my friends and colleagues in the Dog Writers Association of America for help. They suggested wrapping the clicker it in a mitten to soften the sound. That sounded (no pun intended) like a good idea but Sasha still panicked at the noise. Thinking to muffle the sound even more I put the mitten-wrapped clicker in a coat pocket. I even tried clicking a pen instead of an actual clicker device. The result was the same: Sasha cowered as though she expected to be hit, which makes me seriously wonder what happened to her before she came to us. Given her fearful reaction, I discarded the idea of clicker training.

Enter obedience classes at the local kennel, where we were surrounded by a dozen people, all clicking merrily (and seemingly endlessly) through the hour-long training classes.  I distracted Sasha by moving away from the clicker crowd and treating her while praising lavishly, and she gradually calmed and focused on the exercises. Intermediate obedience was better when folks switched to verbal clicks, but some handlers insist on always using the actual clicker. (For the record, I’m not a fan of the “click/treat anywhere & everywhere” approach. Use it at home or in select training environments, sure. But learn to fade the lure as described here.)

I’ve learned a verbal click (“Yes!“) seems the most effective in gaining Sasha’s attention in a happy, positive way. Interestingly, that smart cookie also understands and obeys the “Neh!” sound when I don’t want her doing something–such as chasing ducks or moving toward vehicles as they pass by. I also use the “leave it!” command, but sometimes that single syllable “Neh!” works best.

If using the clicker is important to you and your dog reacts fearfully, consider these strategies to help your dog. And if your dog isn’t hyper-sensitive to such sounds and you want to learn more about clicker training, here are some basic training tips to help you get started.

Fresh-roasted-coffee-beans-and-grounds

Image courtesy of foodal.com

The clicker wasn’t our only sound-related challenge these past few months. The coffee-bean grinder left her literally shaking and barking wildly even if she was at the other end of the house, or even outside with doors and windows shut. It became obvious this dog takes hyper-sensitivity to sound to a whole new level. We tried showing her what it was so she wouldn’t be scared. Tried distracting her, supplied extra love and attention. Nothing worked.

Then I got smart and turned it into Special Treat Time. I got the bag of Fromm’s big oven-baked biscuit treats (something I don’t use during obedience training because of the time needed to chew), put her in a sit-stay where she could see the grinder, praised her, and gave her a treat. Repeated the process when we measured the beans into the grinder, again when the grinder started and yet again when the grinder finished. Yup, lots of treats, with plenty of time to chew before we moved on to the next step. Since we don’t use the grinder daily it took some time to condition her to the sound.  And then one day she came running into the office, whined softly to get my attention, and then trotted back to the kitchen just as I heard the coffee grinder start working. I was heading for the treats when I realized she’d already moved on to play time with Sock Monkey:

If you have a dog that’s fearful of loud noises, the Whole Dog Journal offers tips and strategies to help you. You can also check out this video from Pam’s Dog Academy for some useful ideas to desensitize your dog to whatever noises scare the dog. Whatever strategies you try, don’t expect immediate results. Depending on your dog’s age and the origins of the trauma, the “counter-conditioning” process could require multiple sessions over a period of weeks or even longer.

For some dogs, rare events such as fireworks celebrations can be a source of serious stress. Here are some great tips from the Michigan Humane Society via the Detroit Free Press:
Keep Pets Calm During Fireworks
Desensitizing a hyper-sensitive dog takes time, patience, and a willingness to adapt strategies to find what’s best for you and your dog. Whether it’s clickers, coffee grinders, or some other loud noise, it is possible to help your dog become calmer and happier.

8 thoughts on “Then and Now: Sasha’s Journey

  1. Coffee grinder! … a gazillon clicks. Poor dog – who knew! So glad Sasha is arriving at a more pleasant association. There is something about a lick that makes it a very primal danger signal. Dogs click their teeth and we startle-react without thinking. You can scare a wasp away with a click. Karen Pryor says the sound is processed in the amygdala, the primitive part of the brain. Fascinating stuff. I so enjoy reading of your journey with Sasha.

    • Thank you, Pat! I actually ordered Karen Pryor’s clickers after learning they were a softer click. Even that, however, proved too stressful for Sasha. I ended up giving the clickers away to friends with new pups. I would definitely use the clicker method if I were to have a puppy join the household, as it does seem to help many dogs.

    • Jim, I think I’m the lucky one here!

      I’m glad to know Hiker-dog is more comfortable with thunder. She strikes me as a dog who’s quick to adapt, and you’ve done a great job bringing her into your family. Saw your latest post, by the way, and wondered if you were going to take Hiker-dog with you.

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