Noise Phobia in Dogs – Thunderstorms and Fireworks

NOISE PHOBIAS

Tips on how to keep your pets safe this New Year’s Eve, and during the summer thunderstorm season

It’s the season for celebrations, and with New Years’ Eve upon us, our thoughts must turn to protecting the safety of our pets during festive fireworks displays.

Fireworks, like thunderstorms, can have a significant impact on the psyche of cats and dogs, particularly those who suffer from noise phobias and general anxiety. The thumps, bangs, pops, crackles and flashes of light often strike terror into the hearts of our furry friends.

Here are some great tips on how to help your pets greet the New Year safely, and to endure the summer thunderstorm season, without major stress or serious injury resulting from panic behaviour.

1. Never tie your pet up during a fireworks display or thunderstorm – collars can cause serious injury to struggling cats and dogs during a noise phobia panic attack.

2. Keep pets safely contained inside your house, in a secure internal room with doors, windows and curtains closed for maximum soundproofing. Clear away objects that might harm them if they panic.

3. Ideally stay with your pet during fireworks so that you can calmly reassure them and deal with any hazards as they arise. This is essential in the pet that has previously shown symptoms of noise phobia. If you can’t be with them, arrange for a close friend or family member who is familiar to your pet to sit with them.

4. Use the television, radio or loud music to drown out the sounds of firework or thunder and distract your pet with food and toys.

5. Give pets access to a small, confined crawl space where they can hide such as a crate with bedding or a dark cupboard.

6. Never punish your pet for displaying fear – this will only increase and reinforce their anxiety.

7. Ensure your pets’ ID is fully up-to-date: including microchips and collar tags with current contact details. In the unfortunate situation that they escape, you will be easily traceable.

8. Training the noise phobic pet is easy and can be very effective. Desensitise your pets to the sound of thunderstorms and fireworks with special Noise Phobia training CDs, available on the internet. Play them regularly but very softly at first, and only increase the volume if the pets shows no signs of anxiety.

 

Good luck keeping your pet sane this season and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Polite Greeting – meeting other dogs

Dogs must learn at an early age to greet another dog nicely, and to interact pleasantly together. Play should be calm and confident, without becoming over-excited, boisterous or noisy. A bit of rough and tumble play with appropriately low level growling and gargling is fine, but watch carefully for any ramping up of the behaviour, indicated by an increase in the level and pitch of vocalisation and the aggressiveness of the physical play.

To ensure the dog learns to play nicely, stay very close to your puppy and dive in with your “YES!” positive reinforcer to mark the moments when he is playing well, followed quickly by a delicious treat. Do this repeatedly. It is particularly valuable to reward the times when the puppy steps back for a moment or two and just watches calmly, while taking a breather. This is excellent behaviour and should be encouraged.

If your puppy becomes too excited or boisterous, immediately remove him from the play area and ‘isolate’ him for thirty seconds from all the fun. We call this ‘timeout’, and I prefer this name to calling it the ‘naughty corner’ because he is not being naughty. He is either anxious or simply having a great time! Don’t reprimand him, because this just increases his arousal and could make him anxious – or more anxious. Commonly, dogs who are not feeling confident and who may be feeling anxious about the situation can get overly boisterous. Certainly, dogs who are aggressive start by becoming boisterous, so this must be prevented.

If you consistently reward good play with treats, and put him into brief isolation for unwanted play behaviour, he will quickly learn how to play in a sociable, pleasant manner. Always finish on a good note, so if it’s time to finish the play and go home or resume training, look for an interaction that is very positive and dive in with lavish praise, rewards and ease him away with more treats.

NOTE: Never call your dog to you to leave the fun. He wants to stay and play, so if you call him over – irrespective of the praise and treats – only to take him away from his play friend/s, this is effectively a punishment! It will teach him to avoid you and he could become hard to catch, and/ or he will become resistant to the recall ‘come’ command. And we don’t want that!!!

Problems with dog play:

Most dogs play nicely together, but this depends on their personality and history. If they are naturally anxious dogs or have previously had a bad experience in playtime, they may feel defensive when in close proximity to another dog and certainly when there is more than one other dog. The more dogs there are in the mix, the worse this anxiety can be and the faster it can develop into aggressive ‘play’, and then aggression.

This is very common at off-leash dog parks and beaches. These places should be avoided, because you have absolutely no control over what is likely to happen, nor over what sort of dogs (and people) you and your dog are interacting with. It is far safer to find a small circle of dog-friends – people with well mannered, friendly and confident dogs – and have your own little ‘play group’ sessions. This way you can stay in control of your dog’s environment.

Aggressive play occurs when normal play starts ramping up into over-excitement, and then becomes more physical, noisy and intimidating. This is UNACCEPTABE! Over-excitement must be calmly stopped, before it develops into an environment of aggression. Once a play environment ramps up into a noisy, rough and charged scene, other dogs can become reactive and the entire atmosphere becomes charged with aggression. This can happen in extremely subtle ways that we humans – busy chatting amongst ourselves – frequently miss. Suddenly there is a fight! The signs are there, so stay alert and look for them!

When allowing dogs to interact, each owners’ full attention should be on their own dog – looking for abnormal behaviour – and, at the same time, assessing the whole scene: looking for any problems that might be ramping up. Keep the play quiet and calm. Sure, let puppies tumble and run, gargle and growl – but as soon vocalization becomes noisy and sharp, or if there is boisterous play, defensive cringing or avoidance, and certainly if there is any snapping or worse, calmly separate the dogs and calm everything back down.

If a dog becomes over-excited or aggressive, remove him/them and allow the aggressor/s to chill out for a while, right away form the other dogs. Give him some things to do which focuses him on you, distracts him from his aroused state of mind, and earns him positive reinforcement. For example, ask him for a succession of sit and drop actions, or get him to perform some tricks. When he seems calm again, reintroduce the dog to the edge of the play area and select one very calm and confident dog to approach. Using positive reinforcement for confident, pleasant greetings and kind, gentle play, encourage him to relax in the play area. But if his arousal starts ramping up again, take him away and start again.

It is extremely important to end any training/behaviour situation on a good note, so if your dog ever has a problem with play (or anything) be sure she has a chance to go back to the play area and either successfully interact with the other dog/s, or be close to them without interacting and remaining happy. She should receive lavish praise for good, calm, confident and pleasant play. If she is too aroused/aggressive, however, or simply lacks the confidence to interact pleasantly with the other/s, just approach the play area, but don’t interact.

Take her towards them from a distance at which she is comfortable and showing no signs of stress or anxiety, and give more activities to do – without interacting. If this goes well, go a little closer – say by a step or two – and repeat your one-on-one interaction with your dog, but do not take her so close as to see signs of anxiety!

Once you have ended on a good note, even if you are still a fair way away from the other dog/s you have effected a positive training experience and should end the lesson. Take her home and call your behaviourist for an appointment!

Lead Aggression

The occurrence of increased aggression when a dog is on a leash is EXTREMELY common. The tension she feels, through the leash to you, triggers the dog’s ‘flight or fight’ instinct. She feels restricted in her ability to take flight because the tension of the leash is restraining her. If a dog is anxious about another dog, but knows they can’t run away, the other hard-wired instinct kicks in – the need to fight.

If your dog is more aggressive on the leash, she needs to be very carefully trained how to greet or play with calm, quiet confidence. Special one-on-one behavioural instruction is advised. If it is only mild, however, find yourself a friend with a ‘bombproof’ dog, and train your dog how to greet and, eventually, play nicely.

Take the lead-aggressive dog closer in tiny increments – in a zone where she feels confident and non-aggressive – and reward her for confident behaviour. Taker her back away again to take the pressure off, and then approach again to the same spot. If, after several repetitions of this, she is still really calm and confident, next time, approach a little closer. Depending on how big the distance of her comfort zone is between her and the other dog, this may be ten metres, or one metre, or one foot, but a 10% increment is the rough idea. In other words, go forward in tiny progressions, while watching at all times for any signs of fear or anxiety.

When interacting up close, avoid putting any pressure on the leash: preferably drop it completely, and let the dogs meet or play in a small enclosed area. The leash is still attached and there ready for quick extraction if necessary. Once she gains confidence playing with the ‘bombproof’ dog without the tension, gradually introduce gentle tension until she is happy to play on the end of the lead, which occasionally gets tight while you untangle it, but otherwise is not a cause for anxiety.

As always, finish on a good note – watch for a particularly pleasant interaction, lavishly reward her and then ease her away without any pressure on the leash. Use treats to lure her away and be sure she doesn’t have any negative feelings about being taken away, or she may feel as though she is being punished with the ‘isolation’ from her friend/s.

Polite Greetings – Meeting People

It is very important to establish polite greetings between you and your dog, and between your dog and other people. If she learns to jump up when we greet her when she is a sweet little puppy (which most owners encourage and love) it becomes very confusing to turn around when she has grown into a bigger dog – or has muddy paws – for us to suddenly reprimand her for doing this exact same behaviour!

If several people in the family like the dog jumping up for a cuddle, especially when they are an adorable little puppy, what happens when a child comes to visit or when granny comes every second Sunday lunch? Dogs can’t automatically distinguish between who they are allowed to jump up onto, so they must not be allowed to get into this habit – right from when they come home as a tiny puppy!

It is wise to teach the puppy that they must greet us and other people in a calm and respectful manner. This means we should encourage them from a very early age to sit and wait to be approached for interaction. We should always keep the situation calm, so our manner must be quiet, gentle and hushed. Excitable, rough, frisky and noisy greetings only serves to turn puppies into crazy, uncontrollable dogs!

When about to greet your dog, always have a treat ready, but remember that reinforcement can take many forms and your dog may not want a treat more than she wants your attention after an absence. Reinforcement should always be what the dog most wants, so if you have been out all day, or even for an hour, and she has missed you (and you her) it is to be expected that you both look forward to that moment of reunion. We can all get way too excited and inadvertently teach our dog to be uncontrollable.

Be a good leader and set an example – keep everything low key and save crazy rumbles for outdoor playtime.

If the dog is over-excited, and will not sit, ignore her completely for ten or twenty minutes (or more) until she calms down and then reward calm sits with calm attention and treats. If she is still impossible, institute the timeout zone.

Jumping up on cue

If you would like them to be able to jump up for a cuddle, whether when standing or sitting, that’s okay, but make sure you make it clear – by having a special cue/command – when this behaviour is welcome. This distinguishes it between when it is allowed and when it is not. This is called placing a behaviour ‘on cue.’ For example, my big dog is NEVER allowed to jump up on anyone else – absolutely NO ONE but me, and he is only allowed to jump up for cuddle on cue:

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The risk with teaching the ‘jump up on cue’ training is that the dog can become confused, especially in moments of excitement, so your training must be very precise, consistent and clear.

If in doubt, leave it out! Teach your dog that he never jumps up on people – no one, EVER!

Puppy Socialisation and Familiarisation – the most critical training in a dog’s life

Socialisation and familiarisation involves getting the young puppy used to everything it is likely to encounter later in life, now, while fearless and trusting, and ensuring that the encounter is a positive one.

The most critical period for socialisation and familiarisation in the puppy starts from 3 weeks of age and closes when the puppy is aged around 14 -16 weeks, depending on the breed and individual makeup of the puppy. During this ‘golden age’ they are inquisitive, fearless and learn very quickly. However, as we cannot take ownership of our puppies until they are about 8 weeks of age, and since their vaccination cover is not completed until 10-12 weeks of age, the opportunity for truly effective socialisation is invariably delayed and compacted into a mere 4 to 8 weeks. This need not be the case!

In fact, the importance of adequate socialisation in the young puppy is becoming so highly understood, increasing numbers of leading trainers around the world are questioning the need to balance this socialisation imperative against disease avoidance in young puppies (that is, they challenge the risks of catching a contagious disease against the need for intensive socialisation at this critical age). This is an interesting concept, but one that I do not intend to debate here. Nevertheless, this debate proves the importance of socialisation and familiarisation in the young puppy cannot be overstated.

We therefore need to carefully and sensitively expose our new puppies to as many controlled social experiences as possible, as soon as they come into our care, and certainly before the socialisation window closes. These experiences should be positive – reinforced with food treats and play – definitely nothing scary, and, to be effective, not even neutral. They should include being patted, handled and fed by a wide variety of humans, as well as and seeing, hearing, sniffing and touching of all sorts of objects and experiences.

Controlled ‘heavy’ socialisation is now recommended by all the world-renowned dog psychologists and trainers. They believe the more puppyhood experiences a dog has to draw on, the more resilient the dog’s character becomes. The mild stress of regular novelty in early life are like ‘inoculations’ to stress in adult life. Furthermore, if a puppy is exposed to a multitude of new experiences when fearless, they develop great ‘bounce-back’ recovery aptitude, so specific experiences missed in puppyhood socialisation will be handled more easily by the adult animal.

Effective socialisation doesn’t just involve taking the puppy to the local shopping centre a few times, or just letting the puppy experience life as you experience it. Rather, it involves actively instigating a systematic and continuous controlled ‘assault-style’ program of exposure to new things – to absolutely everything you can introduce your puppy to. If done correctly and thoughtfully, this pumped-up sort of socialisation not only hugely reduces the risk of a dog becoming prone to fearfulness, defensive aggression and biting, but creates one who is much less at risk of stress and anxiety as an adult, in the face of something new.

Actively increasing the number of strongly positive experiences a young puppy has greatly improves the odds of creating a dog with a confident, relaxed, solid temperament, so socialisation is like putting money in the bank, or buying insurance! It is imperative to remember a negative experience on the first exposure to something can create a phobia, so this must be done carefully, to ensure the experience is a positive one.

The best way to achieve this is to hand feed a tasty food treat at the time of exposure. This means socialising the puppy to an assortment of people can be relatively simple – the stranger can be the one to hand feed the puppy, so a good experience easily achieved! Another helpful method is to arrange for strangers to play games with the puppy’s favourite tug toy or ball to create a positive experience. In the case of familiarisation with objects, the owner can hand feed tasty treats and reassure the puppy as he explores the strange object, such as a vacuum cleaner or lawn mower (initially switched off) or play games near the object with the puppy.

While negative experiences are bad, neutral experiences are useless. The experience MUST be a positive one and it must be repeated as often as possible. Allowing the puppy to merely see someone unfamiliar walking, cycling or driving by is a waste of time, as that is merely a neutral experience. The puppy needs to actively interact with that person or item in a very positive way, so stop the stranger, give them some delicious treats and ask them to pat and feed your puppy. They are usually very obliging, but if not, don’t proceed, lest it becomes a negative encounter. Instead, tee up someone you know to help you out. Both the range of people and objects, as well as the number and extent of positive experiences must be high to be effective.

This program of socialisation and famailiarisation should not stop at 16 weeks. It should remain intensive for 12 months and continue in older dogs throughout their life, because even if this is adequately done as a puppy, the effect of the desensitisation dwindles over time, and especially if years go by between encounters.

There are also really good reasons to carefully choose who you obtain your puppy from, since five precious weeks (between the ages of 3 and 8 weeks) of the puppy’s critical socialisation period is spent in the breeder’s environment. You might be surprised what I mean by this point – see ##, below.

Studies have shown that some dogs need more socialisation than others, including:
• Puppies of anxiety-prone breeds (e.g. Staffies, German Shepherds, Border Collies, some terriers etc)
• Puppies who have a more timid, reserved, reactive or sensitive disposition
• Puppies bred by breeders who whelp their litters in quiet sheds, barns, purpose-built kennels that are rarely visited by anyone but the breeder or see any degree of normal household activity
• Dogs belonging to owners in rural or quiet suburban areas (yes, this is a common socialisation negative)
• Puppies belonging to owners with securely fenced back yards (they tend to be left to self-exercise and they get out less, so, ditto!)
• Puppies with over-protective owners, usually small breeds (being overprotective of a puppy is a negative management practice)
• Puppies of large or traditionally ‘scary’ breeds (which strangers may avoid, so they get less spontaneous socialisation)
• Puppies of multi-dog households (they are frequently left to self-exercise together so rarely get out)
• Dogs with unknown backgrounds eg. obtained from rescue shelters or those re-homed privately

## Ideal breeders are those with human and children-infested busy, noisy homes that will expose the puppy to all sorts of adults, children, machines, toys, equipment, visitors, noise and activity since birth (I hope this puts a new light onto the selection of your next puppy! Select a breeder with a large, noisy family!

Remember: you cannot overdo socialisation! Now that we know so much more about the psychology of animals, there is no excuse for an emotionally crippled adult dog to be placed at risk of being ‘executed’ after they bit someone due to inadequate socialisation. Heavy socialisation is the single smartest investment you can make in your dog. It may take a bit of extra time, but it is absolutely great fun taking a puppy out!

In the veterinary world, we are frequently required to euthanase perfectly wonderful happy, friendly family dogs because of one serious lapse in their behaviour – usually they have bitten someone or another dog, and their owners are absolutely shocked and devastated. They can’t believe their trusted Fido, who has never showed a mean bone in his body, has bitten. They have subsequently been told he is now a dangerous dog and must be hidden away from society with big signs, high fences and muzzles, or executed. He may never have shown any aggression, but many owners do not notice anxiety in their dogs, and anxiety and stress easily leads to aggression. Indeed, Fido was the perfect family dog in the small world of his family’s environment – but just one slip when at the park or when someone visited or when a family member did something to which he wasn’t socialised as a puppy, and now his future is looking very bleak. There are many, many time-bombs like Fido in our community and it just takes the wrong sequence of events to bring out the (very normal dog) stress response of biting a feared object, and in that moment, the life of an unsuspecting owner is shattered. This can be avoided through adequate socialisation and familiarisation!

THE OPTIMAL SOCIALISATION AND FAMILIARISATION CHECKLIST:

Here are some specific suggestions on the different sorts of people and things to which your puppy should be carefully and repeatedly exposed, ideally between the ages of 3 and 16 weeks, then regularly until a year old, and then periodically for the rest of his life. Some of these examples may appear similar, but dogs are very discerning about their encounters, so, take careful notice of the subtleties. For example, while a dog may be well socialised to high school-aged children, they may react very differently to toddlers or even primary school-aged children. Note that there are examples of two categories of experiences – neutral (in brown) and positive (in green) – in this list. Remember that a neutral experience is a useless experience, so ensure it becomes a positive experience through the use of food treats and other positive reinforcement, like affection or games.

KEY: Category   Example of Neutral (useless) encounter  Example of Positive (effective) encounter

Strange adult men, with and without beards: Visits house Hand-fed by/play with
Strange adult women: Patted in park Hand-fed by/play with
High school aged children teenagers: Sees on street Hand-fed by/play with
Older primary aged children (8-12 yrs): Patted at local oval Hand-fed near or by (supervised), play with
Younger primary aged children (4 – 7 yrs): Sees in school yard Hand-fed near or play with (supervised)
Toddlers: Visit house Hand-fed near
Babies: Sees on street Hand-fed near
People with different hair styles (frizzy afro): Sees passing by Hand-fed by
People with hats/sunglasses/helmets: Sees on pedestrians Wear while playing with/feeding dog
Children on bicycles: Sees on street Hand-fed near
Adults on bicycles: Sees on street Hand-fed by
People with odd gaits/people dancing, exercising on park gym equipment: Might see by chance Hand-fed by, fed at dance studio/gym park/physio
People of different races/skin colour: Sees occasionally Hand-fed by
People in uniform: Meets serviceman on street Hand-fed by
People using umbrellas: Sees on street Hand-fed by, play near
People in wheelchairs: Meets and sniffs one Hand-fed/play near
People on skate boards/roller blades: Sees on street Hand-fed by/play near
People on crutches/walking frames: Encounters at shops Hand-fed by
Noisy, busy streets/traffic: Walks near Walks to fun place
Traffic lights (with pedestrian noise): Standing near Hand-fed near
Crowds of people at shops, community event: Walks through crowd Hand-fed at event/near
Riding in the car/different cars: Dropping kids to school (neutral) [Only to vet = -ve] To fun places (eg. to off-leash park/beach to play)
Motorcycles – moving: Sees on street Hand-fed by owner
Motorcycle – stationary: Stands nearby Hand-fed by rider
Prams/strollers: Passes on street Hand-fed near
Lawnmowers – push and ride-on: Sees in own backyard Hand-fed near
Whipper-snippers/lawn trimmers: Sees in own backyard Hand-fed near
Vacuum cleaners/dust busters: Sees/hears in own home Hand-fed near
Kitchen appliances Sees/hears in own home Hand-fed near
Power tools Sees/hears in own home Hand-fed near
Sudden bangs (chair tips over, balloon bursts, fireworks, dropped pan, hammering) Hears in own home or nearby Hand-fed near and following
Statues: Sees on street/in park Hand-fed near
Street signs/displays/clothing racks: Sees on street Hand-fed near
Flapping banners/awnings/café shades: Sees on street Hand-fed near
Shop window reflections/mirrors Sees in shopping centre Hand-fed near
Large bodies of water/waves at the beach: Sees from distance Off-leash play / treats
Immersion in water (bath or lake):  Visiting lake/beach Treats when voluntarily approaches/sniffs/touches & on immersion (voluntarily)
Livestock: Sees from distance Treats from owner after sniff
Cats: Sees and sniffs Treats from owner after sniff
Other dogs – on/off leash, at home/in public: Sees in park/on street, sniff and greets Off-leash play
Visits to veterinarian: Only for treatments (negative), health/weight checks (neutral), No treatments – just visits to be hand fed by staff
Visits to grooming parlour: Only for grooming (negative) No grooming – just visits to be hand fed by staff
Visits to boarding kennels: Only for overnight boarding (neutral, possibly negative) Not staying – just off-leash play session

 

The above checklist is by no means exhaustive, but it might prompt you to actively seek out these categories of people and things to which you should expose your puppy. It might also highlight how few of these experiences your puppy might be exposed to in his routine day-to-day life, yet which could happen quite suddenly one day and cause great stress, with possible fatal consequences, such as the dog running across a road and being run-over if a car backfires, or a dog biting a toddler due to lack of familiarisation with children and being put down – these tragedies happen every day in our society. Be sure to control the experience so it can’t go wrong and result in a phobia. Increase the exposure gently: start from a distance and gradually get closer, or start with machinery switched off and stationery, and never ramp it up until the puppy is confident.

If your puppy is showing fear/stress/anxiety during any encounter with someone or something, DO NOT REINFORCE THAT BEHAVIOUR. Importantly, this includes not trying to reassure the puppy, which is actually a form of reinforcement. Say nothing – just stop the encounter immediately and move away, or you will reinforce and exacerbate the anxious, fearful behaviour. Take a break, reduce the intensity and try it all again, but learn from your mistake. This time, take it more slowly, to prevent anxiety in the first instance. This is absolutely essential, or you can actually create an anxious dog!

Awful outcomes of anxiety can so easily be prevented by adequate socialisation and familiarisation while the dog is young and fearless, so please start your program now! Remember to do it gently, in small steps, with loads of positive reinforcement (food treats, games and affection) to make every experience a good one.

One critically important aspect of socialisation in the puppy is to familiarise him with how to interact with other dogs. The best innovation in socialisation with other dogs and prevent aggressive encounters later in life is the introduction, over the past twenty five years, of quality puppy kindergarten classes. By quality, I refer to those run by trainers up-to-date with the concept of positive reinforcement. Sadly, there are still a few old-style ‘yank and yell’ obedience training classes out there, some who even still condone the use of choker chains and other punishment-based methods of training. Positive reinforcement achieves much better results!

These days, we understand that there is no limit to what puppies are capable of learning. Gentle guidance and positive reinforcement is the best method to teach compliance, and while this can all be done at home, there is no better way to provide good quality complete early training than at puppy kindy classes. Socialisation with other puppies is an integral part of puppy kindy so enrol today (if you haven’t already).
Good luck and have FUN with your puppy!

Safety Recommendations for Aggressive Dogs

First, a word on aggression

Many owners experience difficulties with the concept that their faithful family pet may be displaying aggressive tendencies. Unaware of the signs of anxiety and aggression, they defend their dogs’ inappropriate behaviour at the beach or park by saying: “He’s not being unfriendly, he just likes to play rough,” or: “Oh, she always barks at big dogs” or “… at the postman,” or “… at strangers” etc.

Sometimes, when faced with a diagnosis of aggressive or anxiety-based problem behaviours, owners exclaim: “My dog isn’t aggressive!” or “Fido isn’t anxious! He’s a happy little boy!” as if a judgment has been made against them personally. This is very unfortunate because anxiety and aggression are relatively common, and are almost never the result of abuse or mistreatment in any way. These behaviours are most commonly related to a lack of socialisation as a puppy, or continuing socialisation into adulthood. The resulting anxiety in the animal’s life escalates with each encounter with the unfamiliar, until the sum total of new fearful experiences creates overwhelming anxiety, leading to aggression. All animals have the potential to bite when faced by a threatening situation, invariably when they are completely overwhelmed by anxiety or fear.

The ‘fight or flight’ instinct is hard-wired into the animal kingdom, and this includes our beloved domesticated canine and feline species. The vast majority of aggressive episodes are in animals who experience an episode of extreme anxiety, to the extent that they believe their best protection is to defend themselves by attacking (the ‘fight’ instinct). Often this is because they feel unable to take flight – they may be in a confined area or restricted by being on a leash. This is why on-lead aggression is extremely common in dogs that are otherwise relaxed and friendly. The tendency to be aggressive when faced by a need to defend themselves is called ‘defensive aggression’. Animals succumb to their emotional state, induced by fear of the unknown, or fear of a known or perceived threat and become aggressive as an instinctive defence mechanism. On the other hand, overtly aggressive animals – those who attack through pure aggression rather than through fear – are much less common, and can be more dangerous because they give little or no warning of attack.

Aggressive animals need to be fully assessed by a very experienced behaviourist as to their potential for retraining. Many – but sadly not all – aggressive animals can be retrained to develop different coping strategies which will help them deal with perceived threats, other than to resort to aggression. These animals need to be taught to adopt alternative behaviours when facing fearful situations – we need to change their emotional state, through confident and supportive handling.

The only way to absolutely guarantee zero aggression in the very anxious animal is by euthanasia, but this is an extremely undesirable method of prevention or control. It is far better to establish the cause of the anxiety and help the animal overcome it. Overtly aggressive animals are very difficult to retrain, because their aggression is based on the instinctive drive of the predator. Overt aggression is not as uncommon in cats as it is in dogs.

Happily, however, the retraining of fear-based defensive-aggressive and anxious animals has a much higher success rate, because we are able to help them overcome their anxiety or fear in the majority of cases, through desensitisation and counter conditioning (see Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning fact sheet), which is really just a process of positive reinforcement of targeted desirable behaviours.

Safety Risks and the Role of the Handler

Safety is the most important consideration when handling an aggressive animal. The need to prevent injury far exceeds the need to ‘do something’ about the ‘bad behaviour.’

Aggressive animals are highly aroused and will be in an extremely unstable emotional state. Even when the aggression is directed at a particular animal, person or object, the aggressive animal can be so lost in their fear response that they can redirect their aggression to unintended targets. This means they can be so distressed at seeing a fear source, such as a large dog coming towards them, they can turn and attack their beloved owner or canine housemate – this is called ‘redirected aggression,’ and is an extremely distressing experience for loving owners who cannot comprehend that their dog could bite them, or attack its canine playmate. Therefore, aggressive and extremely anxious animals can be very dangerous, even when the perceived threat is still some distance away.

Handlers of aggressive animals therefore need to be calm, in control, and confident enough to provide that support. Not all owners of aggressive animals are sufficiently skilled or have the confidence required to deal with such volatile animals and can end up being victims themselves, particularly in the case of an overtly aggressive animal.

For this reason, sending aggressive animals away to be retrained is not a complete solution – the owners also need to be trained, and the animal needs to experience the normal home environment to overcome its anxiety and fear. While it is important to understand that there can never be an iron-clad guarantee that the animal will not resort to aggression again in the future, most owners can be given the necessary skills to succeed in retraining an animal with fear-based aggression. There is no quick fix, however. It is a long road of recovery, so dedication and determination are two of the first qualities required in handlers taking on the retraining of this most difficult of problem behaviours.

What to do if an animal is aggressive or becomes severely anxious

It is an essential skill of all animal handlers to be able to identify the signs of anxiety and aggression. Aggressive animals usually give preliminary warnings, through behaviour and postures, prior to an actual bite. These can be extremely subtle and all warning signs should be heeded for the safety of both handler/s and the animal.

If any of the following signs are exhibited, all interaction with the animal must be immediately discontinued:
• Dog aggression warnings may or may not include: initially, retreating and avoidance, lip licking, yawning, body tensing/stiffening, forward set of posture, low slowly wagging tail or tail held high and erect over the rump, intense stare, pupils dilated, barking, growling, snarling (lifting lips and showing teeth), lunging, snapping and/or biting
• Cat aggression warnings may or may not include: retreating, arching of the back with fuzzy tail, rapidly flicking tail, ears pinned back, pupils dilated, eyelids narrowed, hissing, growling, swatting and/or biting.

An aggressively aroused animal is in no frame of mind to take in new information, so there is absolutely no point in trying to train an animal in this state. Avoid all discipline and physical or verbal reprimands, as these are likely to increase rather than decrease aggressive responses.

The aggressively aroused pet should be handled very carefully by a responsible adult and segregated in a secure location with all necessary resources (such as water, litter tray) and given time to recover from whatever caused the aggression (see Acute Management of Problem Behaviours fact sheet). It must receive minimal stimulation until calm again. Brief, periodic and low-key visits to the containment area may allow the owner to assess the animal’s reactivity and readiness to rejoin the household. Interaction with the animal should only be resumed again when the animal is no longer aggressively aroused or showing any signs of anxiety. This may be difficult to determine and can take many hours or sometimes days (especially in cats), so caution is needed. Following reintegration, aggressive animals must be monitored closely to prevent further episodes.

To decrease aggressive episodes, avoid all known situations that trigger aggression and seek urgent qualified behavioural advice. Some of the following tips may help with this:
• If your pet exhibits warning signals or actually bites when you physically interact with them, then this interaction must be avoided. This may include petting, hugging, pushing, stepping over them, grabbing by the collar, picking them up, wiping their feet, cleaning their ears, clipping their nails etc.
• If your pet exhibits warning signals or actually bites when you approach his/her food or when in possession of a toy, chew bone, or stolen item, this must be avoided. Distract the pet and remove the item when safe.
• If your animal is aggressive around human food, they should not be in the room while food is being prepared and consumed. Children must not walk around the home eating food if the animal is in the house.
• If your pet is aggressive around their pet food then one should:
 Prepare the pet’s food when the pet is outside or contained in another area of the house.
 Place the prepared food in a room that can be closed/locked.
 Let the pet into the room with the food.
 Close and lock the door, allowing the pet to eat without any contact.
 Once the food is consumed, let the pet out and put it outside or contain it in another area of the house.
 Once the pet is contained away from the feeding room, go into the room and retrieve the food bowl and put it away.
• If a pet shows any signs of anxiety or fear, no matter how subtle, in the presence of children, extreme caution must be maintained, as these animals can be like a time-bomb waiting to explode. Such pets must NEVER be left alone with any children – a responsible adult must closely supervise all interactions. Muzzles may be appropriate in these situations. If close supervision is not possible, the pet needs to be confined away from the children. Do NOT be complacent about this – ‘family’ dogs kill children.
• If your pet aggresses toward visitors to your home, the pet must be confined before visitors are allowed in the house.
 The pet should be placed in confinement by an adult.
 The confinement must be a secure place, such as a room with a lock, a kennel or crate, or a fenced back yard.
• If your pet exhibits aggression when outside in the yard, they must not be outside alone. They should be supervised by an adult and preferably on a leash for additional control. They must never be left outside when no one is home.
 The yard should be securely locked at all times so that people cannot get in and dogs cannot get out.
 Do not tether aggressive dogs in the yard or any public place.
 Electronic containment systems should not be used with aggressive animals, as they can exacerbate aggression.
• If your dog shows aggressive behaviour to other dogs or people/objects in public, avoid walks in high traffic areas or anywhere you are likely to encounter the trigger/s. If an encounter occurs, quickly change direction and create space between the dog and the perceived threat, even if it means walking quickly back the way you have just come.
• If your cat shows aggressive behaviour to other cats in the neighborhood, outdoor access is not advised.

In the case of aggressive and anxious animals, it is imperative to seek immediate and urgent assistance from an experienced trainer to establish a behaviour modification program.

Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning

The goal of desensitisation and counter conditioning is to help your pet learn new coping strategies – new ways of dealing with situations, people or places that make them fearful, anxious, or exhibit undesirable behaviour such as over-excitement by jumping up or barking.

Desensitisation means making the dog less sensitive to a source of fear or over-excitement through regular and controlled exposure to that stimulus. Counter conditioning means to give the dog something else to focus on, to distract it from the source of fear or over-excitement, which will reduce or prevent undesired behaviours from occurring.

To do this, we are going to expose the dog to whatever it is that causes the anxiety or fear – the stimulus – but we are going to do in a very gentle and gradual manner. We are going to use positive reinforcement to reward the dog for facing the stimulus without resorting to anxiety, fear, over-excitement, or any other undesirable behaviours. We are also going to ask the dog to focus on us – the handler – instead of the source of fear, by asking it to look at us, or to perform actions such as sit or drop, or even tricks, such as spin or shake, to receive rewards

The first step is to help your pet to learn to relax and be calm on a verbal command. Animals cannot learn if they are emotionally aroused. For this reason, it is important to first teach your dog to be calm and confident, and to focus on you, the handler, instead of on whatever it is that is making the dog anxious, fearful or over-excited.

This is fully explained in our fact sheet on Calm Confidence Training. Please complete this training before you proceed further with desensitisation and counter conditioning.

DESENSITISATION

The adult who has the most control over the pet should handle these training sessions, but all adult members of the household should know and use the same training methods. A leash is essential and, for additional safety, a head collar is advised. A crate may be necessary for extra control in severe cases of anxiety or aggression.

1. Establish the stimulus gradient before you start. The ‘stimulus’ is whatever is causing the anxiety, fear, aggression, over-excitement or other undesired behaviour, so this means working out how the dog’s response varies depending on the nature of the stimulus. This may include the distance away from the feared object (e.g. an approaching dog), the speed of approach (e.g. runners, bicycles, skateboards, trucks), the size of the object (e.g. is the dog fearful of all sizes of children/dogs, or just toddlers/medium to large dogs, or just teenagers/giant breeds), the personal characteristics (sex or age of the person/dog, whether they’re carrying an umbrella, wearing a hat or beard, pushing a pram, riding a motorbike), or length of time of exposure to the feared object (e.g. does the dog appear to cope okay for a certain amount of time and then just ‘snap’). Once the above has been analysed, organize the stimuli from the least likely to cause a problematic response to the one most likely to elicit the problem behaviour. Always work on the easy one first.

2. Establish a reward gradient – a range of things the pet wants – to be the rewards for the positive reinforcement of the dog’s successes. Find rewards that are extremely valuable (e.g. tiny pieces of bacon, chicken or devon), some of lesser value (e.g. cheese), and finally lowest value treats (Schmacko chips or, in highly food-motivated dogs, dry dog food). Usually high value (jackpot) treats will be consumable human food, such as fresh chicken/red meat, and, in the really fussy eaters, this may be all you are able to use. Some dogs prefer rewards other than food, such as a rub on the tummy, or a game of tug. Your reward gradient may include all of these things. It is important to work exactly out what your dog MOST wants, because this is what it is going to work best on and try hardest to win. (Note: dry dog food is rarely exciting enough for a dog to be bothered over, so is not a good training reward item). Once you establish the order of these rewards, they should be reserved for treatment/training sessions and withheld at all other times, to ensure they remain really special.

3. Engage in multiple daily training sessions lasting no more than10 minutes, using the following training guidelines:

i. Expose the pet to the stimulus at a very low level, well below that which is likely to evoke the anxious/fearful/undesirable reaction. For example, if the stimulus is a large dog, start from a considerable distance away – even several hundred metres. If your dog can see the other dog but does not show any signs of anxiety or fear, you are probably far enough away. If your dog sees the ‘fear dog’ and shows any signs at all of anxiety, fear, over-excitement etc, you are too close.

ii. When exposed to this low level stimulus, the animal should be rewarded for
calm, relaxed, obedient behaviour. Rewards may include any combination of affection, praise, tasty food treats, a quiet game etc. Positive reinforcement is absolutely essential to the success of this behaviour shaping process, so be liberal with your rewards – lots of affection, encouragement and/or treats should be given whenever the dog successfully approaches, even by just one step closer, to the cause of fear or anxiety.

iii. With each success, gradually increase the intensity of the stimulus (e.g. move slightly closer), maintaining a generous reward program for every achievement, until the stimulus is at full strength (e.g. right up close) without evoking a fearful/undesirable response. Depending on what the situation is, this may take one session, a few sessions, or it may take many, many sessions. Small increments are essential to ensure that exposure to the stimulus at any stage does not elicit anxiety, fear or undesirable behaviour.

iv. If the animal responds with anxiety, fear, aggression, or any undesirable behaviour, the stimulus intensity was too strong (i.e. you went too close, too soon). It is not the dogs’ fault you went too close and made it fearful – it is your responsibility to ensure this does not happen, so NEVER scold the pet (but nor should you reward it). All you can do is count it as a loss and reduce the exposure (e.g. turn around and go back well away again) until the pet is calm, then begin all over again. Get it right this time – take smaller steps towards the stimulus. Do not give up and end the session immediately after a failure (see the next point).

v. It is important to end each session on a good note, and this does not necessarily mean that you have to achieve ‘contact’ – a successful exposure up close to the stimulus. You must finish on a good note, even if it is only a small win (e.g. remaining calm from a considerable distance), to ensure the dog has a positive association with the eliciting stimulus. This will make progress easier in the next session. For this reason, if a failure occurs (you went too close too soon) and the dog became anxious or fearful, it is even more important to end the session on a good note, so never just give up and stop the training session immediately after a failure. You must retreat and start again, and even if you only make it half way, or a quarter the distance back to where you were when you exposed the dog to too high an intensity of the stimulus (went too close), that’s okay! Finish the session there, on a good note, with lots of praise and treats to reinforce the dog’s success, which will ensure it remembers the controlled exposure to the eliciting stimulus as a good experience.

 
4. Avoid the following pitfalls, which will make progress more difficult:

i. Each time the pet has an opportunity to engage in the undesirable behaviour, the behaviour is strengthened. In other words, each time a dog is exposed to something that makes it anxious, fearful, over-excited etc, it makes the whole pattern of behaviour worse. So, for example, if a dog that is fearful of large black dogs has an uncontrolled encounter with a large black dog at the dog park and becomes anxious/fearful/aggressive, or exhibits undesirable behaviour such as avoidance barking, that response is actually strengthened, and so our training progress will suffer a severe setback. Therefore all situations known to elicit undesirable responses must be avoided, unless they are part of the controlled training exercise, until the situation improves. This may mean curtailing walks, confining the pet when visitors come over or when the children are nearby, not allowing the pet outside in the yard unattended and off leash, not allowing aggressive displays at windows, doors, and fences, not taking the dog to the shops or the park etc.

ii. Avoid long training sessions where the pet becomes distracted, agitated or
upset. This is also detrimental to training success and is a waste of time. Keep sessions short and end on a really good note, long before the pet (or the handler) becomes tired or agitated.

iii. Take very small steps for each progression stage. If the pet becomes very reactive, the stimulus was too close or too intense, and the handler must ensure that future sessions involve better control of the stimulus intensity. In other words, you may need to be quite a distance away for the pet to remain calm and controlled, and you may only be able to approach in very small stages. Remember, the pet only learns new coping strategies when he is calm and feeling no anxiety or fear, so rushing this process achieves nothing.

iv. Progress slowly and be conservative in expectations. End each session on a positive response with a happy pet. Be prepared that it may take days, weeks or even months to achieve the desired result and may take dozens of small progressions.

COUNTER-CONDITIONING

As the situation improves, the dog should be encouraged to engage in alternative (desired) behaviours whenever the eliciting stimulus is present, such as sit/drop training, focus (‘watch’) training, and trick training, to occupy his attention. By occupying the dog’s attention, we are distracting him from focusing on the person/dog/object which is likely to cause undesired behaviours if the dog pays that stimulus close attention. We therefore teach the dog alternative, more desirable behaviours – new coping strategies. This is explained in detail in our Calm Confidence Training notes, where the dog is taught to focus on the handler through the ‘watch’ command.
This can be a long and potentially tedious process, so remember that all training must be fun and enjoyable for both the handler and the dog. Keep it short, keep it light and keep it fun, so that the dog can be trained to feel positive emotions, not negative ones, when faced by something that causes anxiety, fear or over-excitability

USING COUNTER CONDITIONING to CHANGE an EMOTIONAL STATE

What does this mean?

When a pet is showing an undesirable response (barking, lunging, growling, or jumping etc), that response is usually associated with an underlying emotional state that is also undesirable. Anxiety, fear, aggression, and uncontrolled excitement are common motivational emotions for unwanted pet responses. To help the pet respond in a different way, it is useful to change the animal’s association with the stimulus – the cause of the emotion – and hence, the underlying emotional state.

In other words, if a dog is frightened by a large dog, or becomes hysterical when the doorbell sounds or the postie arrives with the mail, or barks endlessly when travelling in the car, we need to change the dog’s perception of that stimulus from one of fear or over-excitement, to one of enjoyment and pleasure. We could do this by playing the dog’s favourite game whenever a big dog is in the vicinity, or by having the postman feed the dog treats, by asking visitors on arrival to feed the dog treats once calm etc. The goal is to change the meaning of the stimulus – the cause of the dog’s fear/anxiety/excitement – from one that predicts something unpleasant/over-stimulating to one that predicts something desirable/calming.

There are some important prerequisites to this training, so please complete the Calm Confidence Training program and read the Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning fact sheet before you proceed.

Counter Conditioning

■ The first step in changing an animal’s response to a fear stimulus is check how the pet responds to the stimulus according to its proximity, size, speed of approach, location, or other characteristics, such as sound volume. For example, a small dog may be fearful of a large dog that is less than ten metres away, but not if it is fifty metres away, or a dog may not be frightened of a stationary and silent vacuum cleaner, but barks and lunges when it is active.

■ The next step is to find a reward that the animal finds especially enticing (a primary reinforcer), usually human food, such as ham or tiny cheese cubes. It is important to have a gradient of reinforcers, from those that are extremely desirable to those that are less so (secondary reinforcers). In dogs (and cats) that are not food motivated, a game of tug or ‘chase the feather’ may be more rewarding that a piece of cheese or bacon, and a rub or a scratch may be appreciated more than a secondary reinforcer. Each animal is unique, so it is important to test various reinforcers and not just assume that your fussy eater will work hard for a boring dry biscuit.

This is an important process, because your pet will not work hard for the reward if it is not good enough – you must find something irresistible to make your pet want to try hard to win it from you. Your training will excel once you get the reinforcement gradient right!
Extremely desirable rewards – the primary reinforcers – should be saved for training and conditioning sessions, and should not be given routinely, otherwise they are not special!

■ Next, two simple tasks must be taught to the pet.
• The first is a task to get the pet’s attention. This can be as simple as teaching the pet to look at you using a command such as “look”, “watch” or “focus.” The goal is for the animal to have eye contact for several minutes but remain neutral and relaxed. A leash and possibly a head collar should be used for additional control.
• The second is a ‘follow me’ command that allows you to depart a difficult situation very quickly and with a minimum of fuss. The dog should learn to associate a phrase such as “let’s go” or “this way” with turning 180 degrees and briskly walking the other way. This should be performed quickly, but without anxiety or tension, especially without dragging on the leash. Keep the lead loose and use a happy high-pitched voice and pats on your thigh to entice the dog to follow you away from the potentially difficult situation.

Once the three objectives outlined above are established – the gradient of response to the stimuli, the gradient of rewards, and the ‘focus’ and ‘follow me’ on command responses – it is time to start the conditioning process.

Putting it all together – conditioning a different emotional response

Let’s use the example of conditioning a small dog that is fearful of large black dogs. First, enlist the assistance of a very friendly, well behaved large black dog, handled by an experienced understanding and patient handler (ask your local trainer or vet for help in sourcing a suitable pair to assist you). The handler of the target big black dog does not need to do anything but stand in one place with the dog for around ten to fifteen minutes, ideally every few days for a week or two.

Have plenty of primary reinforcer treats and a favourite ball or tug toy, and choose a training location that is not likely to bring any surprises or unwelcome distractions.

Begin with the stimulus (the large black dog and handler) at the predetermined distance at which little or no response is noted. In other words, if your small dog is fearful at 20 metres, start at least forty metres away. Ask the pet to “focus” and begin feeding the treats, regardless of what the pet does, as long as they are not lunging or barking. They can look at the stimulus, but if they lunge and bark, they do not receive the treat. (If they are lunging and barking, or even growling, clearly you are not far enough away from the stimulus).

Once you can maintain a reasonable level of ‘focus,’ reward the dog even more than by giving a treat, through giving the ‘follow me’ command of “let’s go” or “this way”, and take the small dog away from the direction of the big black dog for a brief time. This is the best reward of all for the small dog, being taken further from the source of fear, so is best used after a particularly good response to the ‘focus’ command. Take a moment to relax and play. Repeat the process by moving forward to the same place (no closer) several times.

When the small dog is more focused on the treats than the presence of the big black dog in the distance, it is time to move a little closer towards the stimulus. This should involve going a maximum of 10% of the distance closer (i.e. a tiny increment closer, not too close too soon!). Repeat the entire process, and be sure to give the follow me command and move away from the stimulus for regular breaks, before going closer again.

This process of moving forwards and back, forwards and back, should be like an incoming tide creeping up a beach with each incoming wave, receding back down the sand before washing a tiny amount further up the beach again. It is important to grasp this concept, because it is very effective in taking the pressure off and reducing any building anxiety that the small dog feels in seeing a big black dog in the vicinity, albeit far away. Even though it is not close enough to elicit the major fear responses of barking and lunging to occur, this does not mean there is not an unidentifiable level of anxiety building in the small dog. It is imperative to release this anxiety by moving well back away from the ‘danger zone’ before applying more pressure by going forward again, in tiny increments.

Keep heading closer and closer in tiny steps to the potential threat. Keep asking for focus and keep feeding treats for good responses, and keep moving well back away again. You may not need to move back as far away from the target after a while, so remain vigilant and observe the demeanour of your small dog, to be sure you do not place so much pressure on it so as to ruin the entire training session with too great a build-up of tension. If this happens, the little dog could erupt into the more characteristic defensive aggression behaviour of explosive lunging and barking. If this happens, you have failed! Count it as a loss, learn from your error of going too close too soon, and start the entire process all over again.

If you get it right, the repetitious lavishing of praise, treats and retreats on the dog – as you creep closer to the target – conditions it that being in the vicinity of the big black dog is not causing it any harm nor posing any direct threat, but, in fact, is quite a good experience. You are changing the emotional state from a negative one (anxiety and fear) into a very good one (anticipation, joy, happiness). If you get this process perfect, the dog will barely even notice that it is gradually getting closer and closer to the target, because your constant cycle of reinforcement completely distracts the little dog from everything but you!

If so, end the lesson! Always finish on a good note and never press on for so long that the little dog becomes tired and bored (or that your assistant with the big black dog becomes tired and impatient!). If you have not made contact – crept so close to the big black dog that they can almost touch, that is okay. Do not feel you need to make contact on the first occasion – this will depend on the level of anxiety the small dog feels in the first place, as well as a huge range of other contributing factors. Tee up your helper for another session in a few days’ time, and arrange to meet in the same location. After several more sessions, or after you have made contact, tee up to meet in varying locations. You may be able to move closer in larger increments as the small dog improves, and you may be able to spend more time close to the large black dog before retreating and ending each session.

Once the small dog becomes confident and calm around the big black dog, you should enlist the assistance of a new helper with a different large dog and begin the process all over again. You will find the small dog will progress much more rapidly the second and third and fourth times around, because it will start to ‘generalise’ that all big dogs mean treats and praise and rubs and games, rather than be a source of fear requiring the need for defensive-aggressive behaviours, such as barking and lunging, or fear behaviours such as pulling away or running off.

Applying this process to any behaviour problem

You can apply this process to any behaviour problem situation whatsoever – the treatment for anxiety, fear, over-excitement or aggression in a dog towards another dog, person or object is exactly the same! Just replace the concept of the ‘big black dog’ with whatever it is that elicits anxiety, fear, over-excitement or aggression in your dog, and apply the same process. Just aim to reward calm confident behaviour as you gradually increase the exposure to whatever it is that is causing the response. The stimulus may be a particular person, a vacuum cleaner, a motor bike, the lawn mower, a person carrying an umbrella, granny’s wheelchair, the grandchildren, the doorbell sounding – anything! The gradient may be to start from far away, to turn the volume down or switch something off, to start with something smaller or lower, to start with something in a stationary position, reduce the time of exposure, slow down the approach of something etc.

Even problems with riding in the car can be resolved using the same process – by working out how the stimulus triggers the fear, then breaking down the intensity of the stimulus – the level of exposure – into smaller increments. For example, start with the car stationary, without the motor running, all doors and windows open, someone the dog trusts sitting in the rear seat with the dog, feeding it treats for calm, confident behaviour. Gradually build up the dog’s association with the car until everything is closed up, the engine is running, the car starts moving a few metres at a time and the time in the car extends from a few seconds to many minutes. In other words, break down the intensity of the stimulus into tiny parts and gradually build the exposure as the dog improves. (See the Car Phobia fact sheet)

Similarly, building up confidence and calmness in the dog suffering from separation anxiety follows exactly the same process – rewarding calm, confident behaviour with very gradually increasing amount of separation in both distance and time. Start with the separation of distance within sight, then extend it to out of sight separation for a second or two, and build up the length of separation to many minutes or hours – all the while rewarding calm and confident behaviour. (See the Separation Anxiety fact sheet)

Avoid the following pitfalls, which will make progress more difficult

■ The process with the big black dog, described above, is an example of conducting this conditioning training in a very controlled environment, using a reliable handler and target stimulus. All other situations, especially those known to elicit undesirable responses must be avoided. If you were to experience a different large black dog in an uncontrolled environment, all your training so far could be ruined with one bad encounter.

Depending on what the problem behaviour is, this may mean curtailing walks, confining the dog when visitors come over, not allowing the dog outside in the yard unattended and off leash, not allowing aggressive displays at windows, doors, and fences, avoiding car travel, predicting when the postie will be biking by, not leaving the home dog alone etc. Every opportunity the dog is given to exhibit the undesirable behaviours in an uncontrolled situation, and allowing it to be exposed to the eliciting stimulus, is reinforcing those unwanted behaviours and is detraining the dog.

■ Do not attempt to train for longer than the dog can behave or remain attentive. If the dog becomes distracted, reactive or stressed, the stimulus was too close or too intense, and future sessions must ensure better control of the stimulus intensity. You may need to be quite a distance away for the dog to be calm and controlled. Remember, the dog learns best when calm.

■ Limit the number of exposures within a training session. You want the dog to be successful and end each session on a positive response. The goal is for the dog to learn to associate experiencing the stimulus with something pleasant. This treatment can often help decrease the arousal level so that the dog can be controlled during the situation.

 
For more information on this process, and for preliminary calm confidence training guidelines, see the Calm Confidence fact sheet.

Calm Confidence – training for tranquility through ‘place’, ‘sit-stay’ and ‘focus’ exercises

If you only complete one training technique with your dog, make sure you conquer this ‘Calm Confidence’ training process, because it will be your best friend in many situations! If your dog can look to you for calm confidence in any situation, you will avoid many difficult behaviours.

Tranquility training – teaching your dog to be calm, quiet and confident, even in the face of distractions, fear and excitement – can be a wonderful training tool for all dogs, but is particularly beneficial in shaping the behaviour of naturally anxious or hyperactive dogs. It is sometimes called ‘Go to Place’ training, because we are teaching the dog to go to its place (a bed, mat or crate), and remain there in a calm, quiet and confident state, until released. The ‘focus’ element of this training is an essential skill when confronted with a situation creating fear or distraction, especially in public places.

Listed below are guidelines for a series of daily training exercises, which will take less than 10 minutes to complete. These tranquility exercises are the foundation of teaching ‘Calm Confidence’ behaviour (see separate sheet) and ‘Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning’ training (see separate sheet).

Depending on the dog, it may be more successful to start him on a leash (and head collar in the case of hyperactive dogs) even when training inside the home, then progress to off-leash training only in the final stages of each exercise. Always start the program inside the home, even if the dog’s problematic behaviors only occur outside the home. Once progression to outside training is achieved, maintain leash control until a 90+% success rate is achieved on leash, then complete each exercise with the dog on a long line, before finally removing the leash altogether.

One ten-minute session daily is essential, but two or three sessions daily is even better. If a dog routinely gets bored, distracted, agitated or anxious during these exercises, they can be broken down into two 5-minute sessions. The person with the most control over the pet should begin the training first, but all members in the household responsible for controlling the dog should complete the training program with the dog.

Some of the essential elements to ensure success include:

■ Find a quiet place in your home for initial training – a darkened, isolated room with no distractions. This way your dog will remain fully focused on you.

■ Ideally, use a small mat, bed or crate as a location guide to train your pet to settle and relax in a particular spot or ‘place’ (hence the term ‘place’ training).
• Using a mat, bed or crate will allow you to take this item to other locations where your pet may need to be calm.
• Having a reliable ‘go to place’ command is very helpful for a wide range of undesirable behaviors ranging, from obnoxious greeting behaviors, to anxiety and aggression situations.
• This technique can also be used in cases of separation anxiety for independence training – teaching a safe place to remain when alone (this is where a small collapsible soft crate is particularly valuable, as it resembles the instinctive ‘den’ of the wild dog, therefore providing a place of safety and protection).

■ In all of the exercises, the dog has to do a simple command (go to the ‘place’, sit or drop/down) and then remain in that position – in a tranquil, calm state – to gain the reward.

■ You may want to add in a key phrase like a gentle “sssshhhh”, “relax” or “easy” to teach the dog to associate relaxation with sitting/dropping down and staying put
• The goal is for the pet to be relaxed and calm.
• Relaxation is measured by watching the facial expressions and body postures of your pet; ears and tail should be relaxed and the body soft, loose and low.
• Relaxation is also indicated by slow breathing (not panting).

■ As you progress through the exercises, the handler will gradually start to engage in mild distractions during the command phase. The distractions will become greater only as the training progresses.

■ Remember that the handler throughout the exercise should give the dog verbal and visual direction – with voice and hand signals, remain calm and relaxed themselves (!!), and ensure the entire process is a good experience for the dog.

■ Remember to follow up every successful action with a timely “Yes!” to mark the desired behaviour, followed by a treat/reward to reinforce that behaviour. This is a critically important concept!

■ Do not attempt this training if the dog is already aroused (excitable or anxious/ aggressive). Wait until the dog is in a relatively normal (i.e. calm) state.

■ Non-compliance is ignored, not rewarded, and certainly not reprimanded or punished. Just turn away, take a breath, have a short (e.g. 30-second) break, and adjust the exercise to increase chances of success (make it easier), then try again. If the dog is too aroused, end the session and try again later or the next day.

■ Between each exercise, the dog should break the sit/drop by being releases and encouraged to get up and move away with some form of distraction, before being commanded to ‘go to place’ and sit/drop again. For example, the handler can release the dog and move to another spot in the room and call the dog to them, or lure the dog up and away from the ‘place’ with a toy or treat, ready for the next ‘go to place’ command.

■ The first round of these exercises should be done inside the house with minimal household distractions; children/other dogs should be confined elsewhere, it should be quiet, etc.

■ Do not progress to a higher level (an environment with a higher level of distractions) until a 90%+ success rate is achieved at the previous level. Level one should be in a very quiet, dark, familiar place. The second level should only be in slightly more distracting circumstances, such as in a busier room inside the home, and once quiet, calm compliance is achieved here, only then step up to a third level, (e.g. a secure yard), and a fourth level (e.g. the street), and a fifth level (e.g. dog park) etc. Rushing the process, or jumping levels, and expecting compliance will result in failure.

■ If the dog fails to be or remain calm and quiet, or even to ‘go to place’ in the first instance in the more difficult environment, you have proceeded too far/fast too soon, and the dog is probably confused. You need to take a big step back. Take more time at each level if this happens.

■ If you have begun this Calm Confidence training as a precursor to Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning, you must be particularly cautious not to proceed too fast. Once the dog has successfully completed these exercises in at least two, or preferably three different locations, you can progress to Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning the dog to the triggers/stimuli which are causing his anxiety or fear (see Desensitisation and Counter Conditioning sheet).
The following Calm Confidence training sessions are not intended as ‘one-session-to-be-completed-once-before-moving-onto-the-next-session’. They are stages of training, and may need to be attempted only in part if progress is not fast, or many times over, in some dogs – before progressing to the next session stage.

Be patient and read your dog carefully. Poor observation of your dog’s state of mind and putting too much pressure on him through a rushed training program will only exacerbate his anxiety and over-excitability, not resolve them.

Teaching Your Dog to be Calm and Confident

through ‘Go to Place’ and ‘Focus’ Training

Session One – developing the action
• Using a treat in front of the dog’s nose, lure him onto the mat/bed (or into the crate) with a treat, and, as soon as his front feet are on the mat, say “Yes!” and give a treat. Encourage or lead the dog back off the mat (or out of the crate) again.
• Repeat luring the dog onto the mat several times, and gradually build up to require all four feet being on the bed/mat (or inside the crate) before you say “Yes!” and give a treat.
• END OF LESSON

Session Two – adding the command ‘on your mat’
Revision: repeat the above steps a few times and, if the dog clearly remembers the previous exercise and is calm and compliant, progress to:
• Lure the dog onto the mat and, if compliant, add the command “on your mat” (or “in your crate”) just as he is stepping onto the mat, say “Yes!” and give a treat.
• Repeat luring the dog onto the mat several times with the command thrown in just as his feet go onto the mat, and again, build up to requiring all four feet being on the bed/mat (or inside the crate) before you say “Yes!” and give a treat.
• Repeat the process, but start giving the command a little earlier in the process, until you are saying it just before you start luring the dog on the mat. Be sure to say “Yes!” and give a treat every time the dog successfully gets onto the mat.
Take a break for a few minutes, then quickly repeat the last step before proceeding with:
• Start with the dog several feet from the bed. As you give the command – ‘on your mat’, throw a treat with a sweep of the arm onto the mat. As he goes to follow the treat and steps onto the mat, say “Yes!” and give him two additional treats.
• Repeat the process many times and then try the command with the arm action, but without actually throwing the treat onto the mat. If the dog steps onto the mat (whether chasing the treat that wasn’t thrown or in compliance to the command) say “Yes!” and give him five of his favourite treats (a jackpot) one after another (not all at the same time) and further increase the reinforcement event with a quiet game or extra tummy rub treat.
• END OF LESSON

This second session stage should be repeated many times until the dog is in no doubt as to what the command of “on your mat” (or “on your bed”, or “in your crate”) means.

Session Three – introducing the ‘sit’ and ‘release’
Revision: repeat the previous stages of sessions one and two for revision, to be sure the dog understands the process so far – of what ‘on your mat’ requires.
• Send the dog onto his mat with the ‘on your mat’ command, say “Yes!” and reward him with a treat
• When standing on the mat, command ‘sit’, and, when compliant, say “Yes!” and give a treat.
• Note: if your dog already has a responsive drop/down command, try this session process with the drop, as this is likely to increase your rate of progression. It is easier for a dog to break from a sit, so placing the pet down into a drop will increase success on remaining in position on the mat. If your dog does not have a good drop/down response, just use the sit command.
• Do not expect the dog to remain in the sit position. Within one to two seconds, say ‘Free!’ and allow him/encourage him to get up on his feet and off the mat again. [Important: do not allow the dog to get up of his own volition, before you have released him. You may need to gently hold him in the sit position until your release word “Free!’ is given (but only say ‘Free!’ and release him when he is calm and relaxed, not struggling against your hands)].
• Repeat many times until the dog is immediately compliant to the ‘sit’ command once on the bed, and does not spring straight back up again. Release him within one second of being commanded to sit. Do not hold him in an extended sit-stay yet. This comes later!

If your dog begins to see a pattern – that he is asked to go to his mat and then to sit – and if he does both actions on the one command of ‘on your mat’ (not needing to be commanded to sit – jackpot him! Give him five of his favourite treats one after another. This is exactly what we are aiming for! Make him understand that we are really happy with this progress

The best way to do this is to jackpot him with treats and then: END OF LESSON!

Session Four – introduce the ‘sit-stay’, through a ‘focus’ command
Revision: Repeat the previous stage to be sure the dog remembers that he is to sit when sent to his mat and not get up again until released.
• Command ‘on your bed’ (and ‘sit’ if necessary), then briefly hold a treat to your dog’s nose and, when he smells it, draw it slowly up to the bridge of your nose, so that his eyes follow it to your eyes. When he makes contact with your eyes say “Yes!’ and give him the treat
• Repeat four to ten times (a couple of minutes, maximum) without releasing him, but then say ‘Free!’ and let him get up and move off the mat for a break, before continuing.
• Repeat, and when he is definitely following the progression of the treat to your eyes, introduce the command ‘watch’ (or ‘look’) as you draw the treat up towards your face. Make sure your timing is accurate when you say ‘Yes!” and give him the treat – it must be the split second he makes contact with your eyes. Without releasing him (or letting him break from the sit position), repeat several times.
• After a particularly good ‘watch’ response, say ‘Free!’ to release the dog from the sit position. Take a break and have a gentle play or cuddle with the dog. Remember this is a tranquility training exercise so rough and excitable play is NOT on the agenda!
• (Note: this ‘focus’ exercise can be completed everywhere – not just on his bed. Beside you at the dinner table, when watching TV, on your lap, in the laundry, in the garden, and, eventually, in the street. The more you do this, the faster it will become a great training tool).
• Resume by repeating the whole process, but now prolong the ‘watch’ (or look) for two seconds – maintaining that eye contact – before saying “Yes!” and giving the treat. Get the dog up again for a break after a couple of minutes, and always only after a particularly good response to ‘look’.
• Resume by repeating the whole process, but now prolong the ‘watch’ (or look) for four or five seconds – maintaining that eye contact – before saying “Yes!” and giving the treat. Get the dog up again for a break after a couple of minutes, and always only after a particularly good response to ‘look’.
• END OF LESSON

Session Five – increasing the reliability of ‘place’, ‘sit-stay’, and ‘focus’ commands through introducing distractions
Revision: repeat the entire process from stage one to four, to be sure the dog understands the different commands so far introduced, including ‘on your mat’, ‘sit’, ‘watch,’ and ‘Free!”
We now increase the degree of difficulty by introducing variables.
• When holding the focus for five seconds, try moving your free hand (not the one holding the treat) to your chest and back down again, then slowly waving it around in the air, to see if the dog breaks eye the contact or breaks from the sit. It is okay to break eye contact initially so long as you can get it back again before you release him, but it is not okay if he breaks from the sit position. If he does, withhold the treat, but be fair! Introduce movement gradually!
• Increase movement in a variety of ways: stand up, step slightly sideways, step backwards half a step, move the treat slightly to the side and see if his eyes slide back to yours (we want him to focus on your eyes, not the treat). Always remember to say “Yes!” and reinforce his great efforts with a treat or even two if he succeeds on a particularly difficult step.
• Ultimately, you should be able to hold eye contact if you were to get up and change position within the room. For this I would jackpot and end the lesson.
• Remember, when introducing something new, do not expect the dog to hold eye contact for more than the basic level of one or two seconds. This is very important: when increasing the distractions, reduce your expectations of time to hold the contact/sit position
• Vary the time the pet remains in place from 3 to 10 seconds; vary the direction of your movement; go left then back, swivel and turn away one step and return, turn in a circle, or march in place; vary the distraction by clapping your hands softly two to three times
• Other distractions could include changing the room in which you are doing the training to one with a higher level of distractions – introduce another pet, a child, an adult moving around the room, play loud music, have the vacuum cleaner running…. Use your imagination to create a gradually increasing level of distractions.

Subsequent Sessions
• Continue to vary the amount of time the pet remains stationary, on the mat, in each step.
• Continue to vary the distractions, include jumping jacks (jump and land with legs apart while clapping hands overhead, then jump back again with legs together and arms by your sides), knock on furniture, jog in place, turn your back on the dog, etc.
• Ramp it up with movement and noise: walk away and go all wriggly and make silly, high pitched monster noises; or fall onto the floor and flap your limbs (this is a very difficult one for dogs to resist!)
• A difficult increase in difficulty involves going out of sight: walk away to the door, stop, go back again to reward the dog; walk towards the door, stop, step out of sight and pop straight back in sight again, and go back and reward the dog for staying in place. Gradually increase the amount of time out of sight by a second or two, then five to ten seconds, then thirty seconds etc, until you can stay out of sight for several minutes. This is very good training for dogs suffering from separation anxiety.
• After all of this has been completed in the original quiet, isolated training room, return to the very first session and repeat every stage in a different location. Progress will be achieved quickly, having been through the process previously, and you may be able to get right through all stages in the new location in just one session (but don’t have unrealistic expectations).
• Repeat with different family members handling the pet, but be sure to start from the first stage – in a quiet isolated room.
• All handlers conducting the training should gradually progress to busier, noisier rooms, then repeat the process in the quiet back yard, then progress to the noisy front yard, then to a quiet street or public place etc.
• The process culminates when you can successfully complete this Calm Confidence training in a busy street with many distractions, or a shopping precinct, or the on-leash dog park, and finally, progress to the off-leash dog park or beach.

When your dog can offer a reliable sit-stay in a public place (or other highly-charged situation), and maintain eye contact with you on the ‘watch’ command, you can use this to keep him focused on you whenever he is getting over-excited, anxious or aggressive. This may apply when the dog exhibits over-excitability behaviour when visitors arrive, when anxious about a large threatening dog passing by in the street, when aggressive every time the postman whizzes past on his bike, when barking at the lawn mower or vacuum cleaner, to calm him in the car if he is over-active or anxious, to reduce his aggression if people visit your caravan site… and many, many other daily situations.

Congratulations! You and you dog should now be able to handle pretty much any normal situation in our frenetic human society, with a calm and confident attitude.

Finally, be patient, take small steps, reinforce good responses and keep lessons short and sweet, and always finish each lesson on a good note. Most of all, have fun! Enjoy all your dog training sessions. If you are not enjoying it, then almost certainly your dog isn’t either, and this is likely to produce a poor result. Make it fun for both of you!
If you ever have any questions about this training program, don’t hesitate to contact us and ask for clarification or advice.

ACUTE MANAGEMENT OF PROBLEM BEHAVIOUR – psychological first aid

Acute management refers to the ‘emergency first aid’ or damage control – steps which can be taken to manage a serious behaviour issue. This is critical for any behavioural problem, but is especially relevant in cases of aggression or extreme anxiety. It serves to ensure safety and/or stop the escalation of the behaviour – to gain some time until a professional behaviourist helps you work on a behavioural modification program.

Safety: There is potential for injury since aggressive pets can cause severe harm to their targets through bites. In cases of anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders, the pet can inadvertently inflict serious injury upon itself. Owners must engage in steps to protect the safety of others and the pet. In all cases, psychological injury is prevalent, so the problem behaviour must be prevented or minimised wherever possible. Proper containment is advised at all times, and will vary between cases, but minimally should include secure property fencing and the pet being leashed when not enclosed in the home property.

How problem behaviour escalates: When a pet engages in undesirable behaviour, there is usually pay-off (reinforcement) for the pet. For example, when a dog urinates on the rug, the immediate relief of an empty bladder makes the pet more comfortable, which reinforces the inappropriate behaviour of urinating inside. When a dog barks aggressively at a person passing by the dog’s territory, such as the owner’s car or house, the stranger’s ‘retreat’ rewards, and therefore reinforces, the aggressive display. In other words, the dog thinks that the stranger has retreated because it barked aggressively at the ‘threat’, so it learns to keep behaving in this undesirable way, to remove future threats.
Interrupting the escalation of the problem behaviour: It is imperative to reduce the level and frequency of behavioural problems, because the more often a pet engages in undesirable behaviour, and the higher the level of intensity of that behaviour, the worse the problem becomes, and the harder it will be to resolve. The ‘damage control’ steps listed in the following examples can help to interrupt the escalation of problem behaviour, to calm a situation and provide a level of safety, while professional advice is sought:

■ Identify and avoid triggers for undesirable behaviour

Interdog aggression: Avoid high-density dog areas/times on walks and never allow an aggressive dog off the leash in a public place. If you do encounter other dogs, create as much space as possible between your dog and the other dog – whatever distance is necessary to prevent any form of the aggression from occurring. This could be several metres or it could be one hundred metres, if this is what it takes to prevent your dog from becoming aroused or anxious by the presence of another dog in its sight.

Owner-directed aggression: Avoid all known triggers: in the case of aggression towards children, never leave the pet unattended in the vicinity of children; don’t disturb the dog when resting, don’t allow the dog on the bed if it is aggressive when disturbed; feed the food aggressive dog without disturbances; in the possessive-aggressive dog, do not remove its precious resources (bowl/bone/toys) while the dog is nearby etc.

Aggression towards visitors: Place the dog in another room/area before allowing visitors into the house. Only let the dog out when the visitors have been settled in and keep the dog on a leash if there is any risk of aggression. If there is certain risk of anxiety or aggression, keep the pet away for the duration of the visit.

Dogs with separation anxiety: Avoid leaving the dog alone for periods that evoke distress.

Dogs barking as an anxiety response: Do not castigate the dog to quieten it, as this will exacerbate the level of anxiety the dog is experiencing. Remove the pet to a quiet, isolated place or remove the trigger (the cause of the anxiety) from the vicinity of the dog.

NOTE: These damage control actions are only intended to be temporary safety and stress/aggression minimisation measures – they are NOT long term solutions. All these situations require the intervention of a qualified and experienced behaviourist to set up a behaviour modification program, to address the underlying cause of the anxiety/aggression, and help owners learn how to shape the pets behaviour, to prevent repetition and escalation of the undesirable behaviour.

Don’t respond to undesirable behaviour with interactive aggression

Punitive responses (castigation, punishment) will escalate these problems. Pets with aggression or other problem behaviours usually have underlying anxiety. An animal in an aggressive state is highly aroused and highly reactive. Unhelpful emotional responses such as shouting, screaming and crying are all extremely inappropriate reactions, and will only serve to heighten the pet’s anxious/aroused state. Disciplinary responses are likely to be interpreted by the dog as aggressive and will aggravate the condition, possibly resulting in injury. Remain neutral, calm and confident when dealing with inappropriate behaviour.

■ Don’t respond to undesirable behaviour with comforting reassurance

Trying to reduce anxiety/distress, by comforting or molly-coddling the pet with petting and soft verbal reassurance is NOT helpful. This is very similar to praise and reinforcement from the dog’s perspective, so the dog will misinterpret this enjoyable interaction and think you actually like the undesirable behaviour. This will increase the likelihood of the pet repeating the behaviour. As tempting as it is to comfort an anxious pet, a neutral response, such as ignoring the pet, or using distraction techniques will have a much better outcome.

■ Respond in a calm, controlled fashion to undesirable behaviour: There is nothing to be gained by castigating or punishing a pet after an undesirable act, such as inappropriate elimination (urinating on the carpet) or stress-induced destruction. This is because if more than ten seconds has passed, the pet has no association between your response and their act that caused your anger/irritation. Unless you actually catch the pet in the act, there is no helpful response for any undesirable behaviours. If the pet is still present, calmly remove it, clean up the mess and, in the future, try to avoid the trigger circumstance that caused it (e.g. give the pet outside access to urinate, or do not leave it alone to become anxious).

In the case of a highly aroused pet that is actively engaged in aggressive behaviour, try to remove the pet from the situation (if safe to do so) or remove cause of the behaviour (the trigger). Remain calm and in control, give direction to the pet for an alternative behaviour, such as obedience commands, to distract the pet from its focus on the trigger. It is important to recognise that this is a damage-control situation – you are merely trying to prevent this episode from escalating, by changing the pet’s emotional state.

When a pet is highly aroused/reactive/upset, this is not a good training opportunity. If the pet is too aroused to follow a command, try ‘changing the subject’ by offering another activity to distract the pet from its current frame of mind, and from focusing on the trigger. Try something the pet may enjoy, such as going for a walk or a ride in the car. In the case of a highly aroused aggressive animal, physical activity, such as chasing a ball, can help to calm the dog’s state of mind and redirect its instinctive drive.

These diversion activities are used to divert the pet in a critical situation only, and it is very important to remember that repeated use of enjoyable diversion tactics will inadvertently reinforce the undesirable behaviour and actually encourage it. Therefore, only resort to this damage control activity in the first instance, and seek urgent qualified behavioural advice.

Managing Noise Phobias – fireworks and thunderstorms

When a problematic noise or storm is occurring, how you manage the situation
can help your pet cope and hopefully minimise your pet’s distress. In extreme cases of storm/fireworks/noise phobia, medication is useful for very distressed pets, but should only be used under veterinary supervision. If prescribed, make sure you have the medication on hand, ready for the event. ‘Event’ medications work best if given at least 30 minutes prior to the stressful situation, so if you know a storm is predicted, keep a close watch for its arrival.

Remember that dogs can become affected by the noise or electrical activity of a storm when it is much further away than we humans realise, so medication may need to be given in the hours leading up to a predicted storm, particularly if you are expecting to be out shopping or at work when the storm or fireworks are predicted to occur. Some severely affected animals may be prescribed daily medication during storm season or other noisy periods like fireworks for New Years’ Eve celebrations.

 
Pitfalls to avoid:

■ Punishment must never be used since it will only increase rather than decrease your pet’s distress.

■ Encouragement, praise, or fostering (molly-coddling) are not helpful either, as the pet may interpret them as reinforcement and rewards for their fearful, anxious behaviours they are exhibiting at the time.

■ Try to remain calm yourself. If you are calm, it will help your pet.

Useful interventions:

■ If possible, make sure your pet is not alone during the stressful event.

■ Create a safe and secure environment for your pet. This might be a darkened room where lightning flashes will not be seen, or a windowless room where sound is muted. If your pet has self-selected a hiding place, do not try to forcibly remove them. This is not helpful and may result in an aggressive response.

■ Try playing music that is loud or has a strong beat or some type of white noise (such as an exhaust fan) to muffle the outside noises that cause the distress.

■ Playing with familiar toys, engaging in games, or practicing obedience may help to distract the pet leading up to the event, but must be stopped if the animal reacts to the noise and exhibits fear or attention-seeking behaviours, as the play will only reinforce the dog’s reaction to the noise. If the behavior is exhibited, ignore the dog. If the dog stops playing and shows fear during a thunder clap, but resumes playing after each clap, reinforce the resumption of play with positive interaction, praise and treats. In other words, ignore the unwanted fearful behavior, but reward all positive, confident, playful behavior.

■ Use of a head collar and leash may offer additional control and can be calming for some dogs. Thunder vests (see any big pet retailer) can also be very comforting for some (but not all) pets.

■ If you have pre-trained your pet to go and settle on a mat, bed, or other location, use this strategy to help calm the pet. A particularly good strategy for this is the use of crate training (see crate training tip sheet), since the crate can be a snug and comforting little ‘doggie den’ for an anxious pet who prefers to hide from something fearful. Let them emerge from the crate or bed (or other hiding place0 in their own good time, and lavish praise on them for emerging.

■ Once the event has passed, be proactive and contact your veterinarian for information on medications and your dog behaviourist on how to start desensitisation and counter-conditioning exercises to help your pet cope better with the next episode.

Desensitisation CDs, which replicate many sounds that can cause anxiety, can be purchased on the web. These can be regularly played during times when the pet is calm and happy, initially at low volume but increasing to a very loud volume to simulate the actual event noise, to get the pet used to hearing noises which may otherwise cause distress.