CASE STUDY: The Sound-Sensitive Border Collie
by Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

Description:

Gracie is an 18-month-old intact female Border Collie.

Presenting Problem:

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.

History:

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 environments.

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 AD titles.

Previous Episodes:

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 the area.

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.

Previous Treatments:

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 occurring.

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 worse.

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 to work.

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.

Recommendations:

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.

Comments:

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 them.

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 fast rate.

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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