CASE STUDY: The Sound-Sensitive
by Deborah Jones, Ph.D.
Gracie is an 18-month-old intact female Border
Gracie displays extremely fearful reponses to
human-produced crowd noises, especially whistling and clapping.
If possible, she attempts to escape from environments that are
loud and noisy.
Gracie is NOT fearful of other loud sounds such
as thunder or fireworks.
Gracie was bred by her owner. Both parents are
reported as having stable temperaments. Her father is a working
sheepdog imported from England and her mother has earned the following
obedience and agility titles: OTCH, UDX, OA, OAJ, AD.
Gracie had been exposed to dog shows and training
classes since she was
10 weeks old and was reported to be very comfortable in those
Gracie is described as being "very soft,
very intelligent, and a very talented jumper". In spite of
her fearfulness she has earned her AKC NA and NAJ, and her USDAA
Gracie's problems began when she was 14 months
old. Her owner took her to an obedience training seminar. This
was the first seminar that Gracie had attended. The owner reports
that the seminar-giver, who wore a microphone on her shirt collar,
would give a loud, piercing whistle to gain the attention of those
present. The seminar-giver would have participants play excitedly
with their dogs, and use a whistle to signal the handlers to stop.
The loud whistle, coupled with sound amplification
from the microphone, was quite startling and frightening to some
of the dogs. When Gracie's owner realized that her dog was becoming
upset by the noise she crated her, but did not remove her from
Gracie's owner realized that there was an ongoing
problem when she was training with other people in a different
setting. Someone whistled to get his/her dog's attention and Gracie
began to shake and tried to leave the area. Her owner described
Gracie's reaction as "total meltdown". This fearfulness
and the accompanying avoidance/escape behavior escalated and generalized
to any situation in which people were being loud and noisy. Gracie
displayed this fearful response even in familiar environments.
Gracie's owner reports that she has great difficulty
at agility trials, especially getting Gracie on the start line
when people are cheering and/or clapping. Gracie ran away from
her owner once while warming up on the practice jump and seemed
to be heading for the car and/or her crate. However, she did stop
and return when called.
At her first agility trial (indoors and relatively
quiet) Gracie did well. Her second show (also indoors) was very
crowded and noisy and Gracie became extremely upset. The fearful,
panicked behavior is much more of a problem outside the ring than
inside it. Her owner reports that keeping her focused and relaxed,
and getting her into the ring is very difficult. Amazingly, Gracie
is able to run and complete a course (even win a class), despite
being slightly spooked by hearing a whistle in the next ring.
Gracie's owners has tried a number of techniques/treatments
for this problem.
She reports that she took her off of Cheque
Drops (a product designed to suppress heat cycles in intact females).
It doesn't seem likely that this product would have an effect
on fearful behavior.
A very useful treatment for Gracie has been
the use of a Gentle Leader head collar. In Gracie's case, the
head collar seemed to have a calming, relaxing effect (this has
been reported in many other cases as well).
Gracie's owner has administered an herbal remedy
called Calm Down to help her relax. The ingredients listed (valerian,
passion flower, etc.) have been said to have a calming effect.
She has also given Gracie a product called St. John's Wort. In
humans, it has been reported that this product can ease depression.
However, there have been no controlled clinical studies demonstrating
this effect. Her owner reports that the Calm Down seems to help,
but she has seen no change from the St. John's Wort.
NOTE: Always check with your veterinarian
before administering any type of remedy, even those available
over-the-counter. Even products touted as 'natural' can be dangerous.
Gracie's owner made a tape of whistles and clapping
to play at home, and has made an effort to expose her to these
types of noises in other settings (such as children's soccer games
in the park).
Gracie's owner has also worked with clicking
and treating Gracie for 'brave' behavior at practices and trials.
Diagnosis and Prognosis:
Gracie is displaying a learned fear response
to whistles, clapping, and other loud noises. This response seem
specific to situations in which dog training and/or trialing is
I believe that Gracie has a very positive prognosis
for a number of reasons.
First, her owner is an experienced dog trainer
and she is committed to working on this problem. The owner is
realistic in her understanding that this may be a long-term issue.
Also, her owner is aware that force will only make this problem
Second, Gracie is still able to focus on her
work, even when she is in an environment that elicits her fearfulness.
This suggests that Gracie is not completely overwhelmed by her
fear. It is also an amazing testament to her underlying desire
Finally, her owner reports that Gracie is able
to participate in herding and that the whistles used in that setting
do not upset her. This is a very positive bit of information as
it suggests that Gracie can learn to ignore her fear when the
activity/reinforcer is compelling to her.
Gracie's owner has already tried a number of
very reasonable techniques to deal with this problem. However,
I'll highlight those that I believe might be particularly useful
as well as adding some other suggestions.
1. Remove the added pressure of performance
from the fearful situation. For example, take Gracie to training
sessions and agility practices with other people who are being
loud and excited. Allow Gracie to 'hang out' while ignoring her.
If possible and safe, leave her off-leash and leave her crate
open close by. If in a public setting, you could possibly set
up her crate inside an X-pen or put her on a long-line. Let Gracie
do absolutely anything she wants without comment. However, when
she shows any sign of being calm and relaxed, click and treat.
Do not try to elicit any particular behaviors from her, let her
figure out how to earn her reward.
It is important to be very aware of the body
language that signals either tension or relaxation in Gracie.
Most owners are very good at reading ear and tail carriage and
body posture as well as facial expression. Look for the little
signs that Gracie may be displaying some relaxed interest in the
activities that are occurring. Click and treat for anything that
is NOT fear or escape behavior. If Gracie chooses to hide in her
crate that's fine, just ignore her. She'll come out when she feels
safer and more secure. This must be her decision. We cannot force
our dogs to be brave.
2. Make an association between the fearful stimulus
and favorite activities. In Gracie's case we want to pair noise
and clapping with herding. Make lots of noise just prior to Gracie's
turn at herding practice. Ask people to clap and whistle just
before and while she is herding. Start out slow and easy and increase
the level of noise and excitement as Gracie shows she can ignore
it. Don't overwhelm her at the start. You want the level of excitement
to just barely get Gracie's attention. We want the noise to signal
that Gracie's favorite activity is about to begin.
If Gracie does well with this, add some agility
practice just before herding. Set up a jump or two, or some weave
poles. Ask Gracie to perform those obstacles, clap and whistle,
then allow her to herd.
NOTE: You can use this basic technique by
pairing a watered-down version of the fear-inducing stimulus with
the dog's favorite activity. For example, imagine a dog who displays
fear of umbrellas and whose favorite activity is eating dinner.
Lay out an umbrella (unopened) in the same room where he eats
his dinner. Move the umbrella closer to the dog's bowl each day.
Then move it further away but open it, again moving it closer
each day. Then move it further away (opened) and move it around
a bit as the dog eats. Each day (if the dog is able to ignore
the umbrella) add more movement.
3. Develop a pre-show warm-up ritual that your
dog enjoys. Stick to that ritual religiously, both in training
and in showing. Gracie's owner reports that her most difficult
time involves getting Gracie into the ring, especially when there
is a lot of excitement. The pre-show ritual should help.
The ritual should include physical warm-up (including
warm-up jumps), tricks, play, and a plan for moving to the start
line smoothly. Also have a contingency plan for those times when
you will get called to the line, then have to wait or take a short
break before your run (this happens to all of us!).
The ritual serves two purposes. First, it gives
Gracie a predictable sequence of events prior to her run. Consistency
and predictability will lead to a feeling of comfort and security.
Second, it keeps Gracie focused on you and on the work. This doesn't
leave her as much opportunity to become nervous and stressed.
Develop and practice the ritual as you would
train any other exercise. Consider Gracie's need for physical
preparation to run as well as her need to concentrate on her work.
The ideal ritual will be different for every dog. Some need to
be more revved up; others need to be more relaxed. Experiment
with the ritual until you get your dog in an ideal physical and
mental state of preparation before her run.
With a dog who is antsy and nervous, physical
movement can help to drain off the build-up of adrenaline and
other stress hormones. The movement can be either energizing (bouncing,
jumping, running) or calming (moving through a series of sit,
down, stand changes).
As an example, here is my basic pre-run ritual
that I have developed with my Papillon. As I stated, the ritual
will be different for every dog and owner. However, this may give
you some ideas.
Early in the day we take a fairly relaxed walk
on a Flexi-lead around the grounds. I allow him to investigate
and sniff all he wants. When our run time gets closer (about 1/2
hour before if possible) we take a more controlled walk around
the rings on a shorter leash. I'll randomly ask for some obedience
behaviors like sit, down, heel, and come. I use food treats or
play as a reinforcer. As our run gets even closer we start to
do some physical warm-ups and stretches along with some tricks
(spin, walk on your hind legs, run backwards...) We do a series
of warm-up jumps along with some running games like "ready,
steady, go!" While waiting to get on the line I might give
him a bit of massage. We also play some very interactive games
like "come here, get back" "get in, get out"
and "watch me, you're free". Since Copper is small and
has some personal space issues, I typically hold him and carry
him into the ring, putting him down and having him move into position
at the last minute.
4. Continue Gracie's exposure to noise, but
don't overwhelm her. Our goal is to help Gracie habituate (stop
responding) to the noise. However, if we use flooding (overwhelming
her with the fear-inducing stimulus) we will set back her progress.
Flooding as a technique is a very poor idea and most psychologists
do not suggest it. However, many people still have the idea that
you must force the dog (or the person) to face what he fears.
In reality, this does much more harm than good.
Imagine if you were forced to be in close proximity
to something that terrified you (heights, snakes, deep water,
etc.). Would you eventually 'get used to it'? In most cases, no.
Instead, you would become increasingly panicked and escape at
the first opportunity. The escape would be the only thing that
decreased your fear. In the future, you would attempt to decrease
your fear again through escape. What you have learned, through
negative reinforcement, is that escape is the only way to make
your fear decrease.
NOTE: Negative reinforcement is a commonly
misunderstood term. Negative reinforcement refers to increasing
a behavior by a removal of an unpleasant stimulus. In this case
the behavior that is increased is escape as it moves the subject
away from the fear-inducing stimulus.
Always remember that learning cannot occur when
the dog is overwhelmed by an emotional state. The fear response
overrides conscious thought. In order to help the dog learn, we
must keep the fear-inducing stimulus at a low enough level that
the dog can still function.
Sound sensitivity seems to be more common in
the herding breeds than in other types of dogs. One theory is
that herding dogs need to be acutely aware of noises that might
signal imminent danger and that this, coupled with their ability
to learn and adapt very quickly, might lead them to develop sound-related
fear responses far faster than other dogs.
Gracie seems to have developed this fearful
response in just one or two exposures. In scientific language
we call this "one-trial learning". Typically, it takes
repeated exposures for most learning to occur. However, when dealing
with extremely emotional responses (such as fear), a single, very
vivid experience may be enough. One-trial learning is a form of
classical conditioning (learning a stimulus-response association)
rather than operant conditioning (learning a behavior-consequence
connection). Classical conditioning leads to automatic responses
to particular stimuli in the environment. In Gracie's case, the
stimulus is the noise and the response is fear. Once the fearful
response has been triggered, Gracie's only coping mechanism is
to try and escape. When in this state, it is very difficult for
the learning of new responses to occur.
This is also the down-side to having a dog who
is a fast learner! They can learn unwanted responses just as quickly,
often faster, than they learn the things we are trying to teach
Generalization of fear responses happens quite
quickly. The response that was learned in a specific setting carries
over into any situation that seems similar. When unchecked, this
cycle allows fear and avoidance to develop at an astonishingly
Unfortunately, it is more difficult to
break the learned connection than it was to learn it in the first
place. However, it can be overcome. It takes planning, effort,
and patience to work through this type of problem.
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