Dogcharmer: Is it just loud noises?

It might be PTSD, and you can help her.

A dog afraid of noises can be gradually trained to be desensitized. —Karolina Grabowska

Dear Dogcharmer,

We recently adopted a mix named Sheila. She’s about 2 years old, and acts normal most of the time. However, sometimes she just shuts down all of a sudden. She’ll hide under a bed shaking for a very long time, and there’s no talking her out of it. At times we’re aware of a noise that may have set her off, and at other times we have no idea. Any suggestions?

Peter and Mary

Dear Peter and Mary,

First, let me thank you for being among the “good guys” for adopting. Lots of dogs have problems with loud noises. An awful lot of potential police and armed forces dogs wash out because of their inability to adjust to the sound of gunfire. But the fact that she sometimes “shuts down” with no apparent noise or cause tells me there’s some kind of PTSD. It may not be just a loud noise, but rather a type of noise, or a smell, that brings to mind a past trauma for Sheila. Bear in mind, what you can hear at 100 yards she can hear at 400 yards. Plus, we two-leggeds have around 5 million olfactory cells in our noses. Sheila has closer to 200 million.

So the question is, “What do you do when she shuts down?” I suggest you not fawn all over her with an attitude of “you poor thing.” The goal is to support, comfort, and help her, with an upbeat attitude. “Sheila, you have some bad memories, so let’s change your attitude with some fun stuff!” Then work at manipulating her into a fun activity, using treats — people-food treats, if necessary! The treats must be earned. Do not feed her under the bed. That would reward her fear response. Have her find the people-food treat she smells in your hand as you back up, acting silly. Then she might see you place the treat behind a shoe or something, as you say, “Find the treat!” Or put a leash on her and take a fun walk to someplace she likes. Reward her with a serious treat for cooperating when you tell her to sit. The goal is to redirect her attitude from self-pity to doing something upbeat and rewarding.

You may also think about a noise-desensitization program. Have her lie down in a favorite place and play a noise tape of sounds of guns, explosions, sirens, etc. Play it softly enough that she can tolerate it, as she gets special treats. Ratchet up the volume, with success building on success.

Good luck,
Dogcharmer Tom

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