Sound Sensitivity – Part One

Arlo enjoys a nice, QUIET morning at the lake

Arlo’s recall training fell by the wayside recently when I stopped taking him to parks.

Arlo is sound sensitive, he has been since I picked him out of the Peterborough Humane Society.  No doubt my horrific early training attempts compounded this fear.  He is specifically sensitive to “pop” type noises – fireworks, gun shots, cap guns, cracks of thunder, hockey pucks hitting the side of a rink, etc.  He also has a history of generalizing this fear.  I lived near a section of TransCanada Trail when I was living in PTBO, which made for a lovely walk/bike ride, but was also prime real estate for young nogoodniks and their plentiful supply of fireworks.  Throughout the summer months, fireworks would go off anytime from late afternoon (in the broad daylight?!?) to late at night.  Arlo soon generalized this sound sensitivity to “outside-in-the-dark-in-the-summer” and would not pee in the yard after about 8:30.  Luckily, he’s always had an iron bladder and never ended up with any house training issues from this.  These past couple of years he’s been doing quite well with the exception of the logical nights for fireworks – Canada Day, Victoria Day, etc – when he rides out the night in the basement with the drier running.

Unfortunately, last month Arlo was triggered terribly.  It was a rainy week, so I was walking the dogs around the Exhibition Place to avoid the accumulating mud in the parks.  While it’s not a regular stomping ground, especially since the fenced area where I let them off leash was locked up, I’d never had a problem with scary noises in the area. About half way through the walk the most frightening noise happened – a sort of echo-y gun shot noise. Exactly in Arlo’s profile of Noises That Mean the World is Coming to an End.  Previously when he had been triggered, I could convince him that it was a false alarm with a bit of food and putting on the Jollies (mostly the Jollies, I think. Food isn’t that potent for him.)  He actually recovered quite well from several noises not too long before this.  While he was recovering from this first gunshot noise, it happened again… and again… and again… There was nothing I could do but race back to the car as quickly as the dogs could move.

Generalizing anxiety works in funny ways, and it’s certainly no surprise that Arlo’s sound sensitivity generalized so quickily and easily and has proven to be so ‘sticky’ over the years.  While he was not in a park when this trigger-stacking occurred, he ended up generalizing this fear to parks regardless of whether or not he heard a specific trigger.  I was wondering if it had something to do with the group of dogs that he was walking with, but he shuts down in any park in any situation, with or without the other dogs present.  And thus, Arlo is no longer coming out to parks with the group.

This weekend, I attended a seminar with Sarah Kalnajs called Risk Assessment for Training and Behaviour Professionals.  As I attempt to come up with a realistic treatment plan, it’s just occurred to me to use her “Components of Canine Risk Assessment”.  Taken from the slide, a CRA is “a ten-component review used to determine how to rehabilitatable [sic] a dog will be and whether that rehabilitation can be done safely and effectively in the current environment. The CRA is an objective tool that behaviour consultants can use to formulate their recommendations and gauge the likelihood of success of a given protocol (though there are many variables the consultant can’t control)”

While the CRA is most helpful in aggression cases, I thought I’d put it to use here and see what I get out of it… if for no other use than for shits and giggles! (so much as one might shit or giggle, given the situation.)

Canine Risk Assessment (taken from the slides) and how Arlo might chart

(the + and are to indicate whether these points will work in my favour)

1. Age of onset/duration of problem behaviour ( )

Presumably early, as I got him at the estimated age of 1.5.  Dogs reach sexual-social maturity at around 3 years, so he was essentially an adolescent at the onset of this fear.

2. Specificity of behaviour vs. generalization to contexts and stimuli ( )

The anxiety is generalizing to other contexts and sometimes doesn’t appear to require the specific sound trigger.

3. Presence of visible/discernible warnings ( + )

I will say ‘yes’ here, because if he isn’t reacting to a specific trigger I can see him begin to stress

4. Predictable patterns of aggressive behaviour ( + )

No aggressive behaviours

5. History of harm/severity of harm ( + )

Never caused harm

6. Degree of inhibition/arousal level ( )

Arlo does not display behaviours that I would generally associate with arousal. I would call a sound sensitive dog ‘aroused’ if they barked and carried on upon being triggered by the sound.  However, in this context “inhibition” (the other listed option) is also not particularly helpful.  When working with aggression cases, it’s generally helpful for a dog to have some level of inhibition, assuming it is intrinsic and not brought about by fear caused by the handler.  That basically means that the dog isn’t ‘hair triggered’.  In this situation, Arlo could be said to be inhibited.  He doesn’t have an aggressive display when triggered, however I’m not going to give a plus sign to this point on that basis because his reaction is to shut down.

7. How quick is the ‘trigger’?  ( )

Very quick trigger. A sound at even a very low volume/far away is likely to trigger him.  He trigger-stacks very easily because his recovery time is so long. What I mean by that is that when he is triggered, he doesn’t return to his “base line” very easily.  He doesn’t calm quickly.  That means that the next trigger will send him over threshold very easily, and that trigger does not necessarily have to happen immediately after the first.  If he heard that second trigger when he was at ‘base line’, then it very likely would not send him as far over threshold.  What I also notice about Arlo is that subsequent sounds need not match his profile of ‘trigger’ so closely – in a trigger stacking situation, a sound that previously would not have triggered him may cause a significant reaction.  This model is pretty much the same thing as the “Bite Threshold Model” that Jean Donaldson describes in her book, The Culture Clash (read it if you haven’t already!)

8. How likely would unintentional provocation be? ( )

Unintentional provocation is very likely, as I cannot control the triggers.  Not only that, I don’t know when or where many of them will occur.

9. Are the owners/family fearful of the dog? ( + )

I am not afraid of him (again, this question matches more appropriately for aggressive behaviours). I do find it stressful when he is triggered because I am pretty well helpless – Arlo can’t swim and was dumped into the deep end of the pool and I was unable to stop it.

10. Is management reasonable? Possible? Likely? ( /+ )

Management is somewhat reasonable, possible, and likely.  I say “somewhat” because I can control some aspects.  For example, the May 24th weekend is coming up, so before dark I will be sure that he has eaten, peed, and will put him in a windowless basement room with the drier running and the lights on and maybe a radio. It  is predictable that he will be triggered in that situation and I can be proactive to avoid the aforementioned “dump into the deep end”.  However, there are some things that I simply can’t control through reasonable means.  Unless I stop taking him outside all together there is the possibility of him being triggered by flapping election signs, cars running over water bottles, etc.  I’m not sure what to rate this point because management of the big things like fireworks and the sound cannons at Cherry Beach are easy to manage but the on-street random noises are not. I suppose I will put this one half and half (… I don’t know if I’m allowed to do that…)

So, the tally is  4.5 + and 5.5 . But where does that really leave things?  The pluses and minuses are almost equal. He is not redirecting a bite to me or another dog when he is triggered.  Which is excellent. He also has not generalized this anxiety to any and all situations. Which is also excellent (and is a dreadful thought).  But some of the minuses are really minuses – specifically that he is easily triggered and doesn’t recover quickly. Just because there is half a minus point over the positives doesn’t mean that this will be 55% difficult to “fix”.

So where does this leave me in terms of coming up with a treatment plan… Stay tuned, “same time, same station,” for further ruminations and my Plan of Action.

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