This week marked the second anniversary of Sasha joining our household. Freezing drizzle and a silly injury of mine has kept us housebound, so we’ve celebrated with toys. And that is A Big Deal.
Why? (Glad you asked!) When Sasha came to us, she didn’t know how to play. She was anxious, easily startled, and tended to shy away if one of us made sudden movements or raised a hand. When we tossed a soft Frisbee, she’d tremble or retreat from the action. Ditto with balls of all sizes and textures, although Buddy The Wonder Cat demonstrated the fine art of chasing after toys for her. The variety of toys we piled into a basket might have thrilled any other dog, but Sasha just walked on by.
Then, a few months later, she received a Sock Monkey, and suddenly it was game on! (And thanks again to the sponsors of the Humane Society of theOzarks who donated all those treats and toys.)
Fast-forward 18 months. We were wandering through the local pet supply store when Sasha discovered the toy aisle. She browsed through every shelf at nose level until she found the red stuffed squeaky toy pictured above and now known as “Puppy.” (Ask her to fetch Puppy and she’ll bring you this toy. Every time.) She nosed that toy out of the bin and examined it thoroughly, to include a few exploratory nibbles, before carrying her prize triumphantly to the checkout counter. Since then, she’s learned the fun of “fetch” and “bring it” and enjoys a rousing game of tug. And she’s generalized that experience to her other toys, so we’re now treated to play time with Puppy, Sock Monkey, and Squeaky Duck.
Today, though, it was all Puppy. I think we’d hit 15 rounds of “fetch” and “bring it” before she decided “tug” was the game of the day, followed by a tear-the-stuffing-out session. By that point I was laughing too hard to focus, which explains the slightly fuzzy photo above.
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 Americafor 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.
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:
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.