eileenanddogs

Month: June 2021

6 Ways To Prepare Your Dog for Fireworks Starting TODAY

6 Ways To Prepare Your Dog for Fireworks Starting TODAY

firecracker exploding in the air with lots of orange sparks

Is your dog scared of fireworks? Don’t wait until Canada Day or Independence Day to start worrying about it! You can make a plan and take action now to help your dog be a bit less afraid of the unpredictable scary sounds of fireworks, firecrackers, whistles, and even guns.

Get Ready

Here are some things you can do today.

1. Check with your vet about medications
If your dog gets very anxious about noises and you have never talked to your vet about it, do so now. He or she may be able to prescribe something to help. And if you can’t get in before the holiday, do your best with some of the other ideas here to get through it and call your vet as soon as you can. This is a long-term problem. Sound phobias tend to get worse and are not something to be taken lightly.

2. Countercondition to noises
Get some great treats and start carrying them around at home. Whenever there is any kind of sudden or startling noise, but especially stray bangs and booms as people start to test their noisemakers, rain treats down on your dog. Use those special treats only for noises. Don’t pass them out for nice behavior (use something else for that!), and don’t ask for any particular behavior from your dog when the noise occurs. Just give the special treats. This is sometimes referred to as ad-hoc counterconditioning, and here is an excellent article about a survey that indicated its efficacy.

You may wonder why I am not recommending buying an app, CD, or YouTube video with fireworks sounds to “practice” with. Performing desensitization/counterconditioning with sounds is tricky.  People who haven’t done DS/CC before run a real risk of scaring their dogs further instead of helping them, and many of the sound collections are poorly designed for DS/CC anyway. This is why I am suggesting straightforward counterconditioning, which uses environmental noises that are happening anyway. Save the formal training for well after the holiday, when scary noises are less likely to happen.

3. Create a safe place
Make (or adapt) a safe place for your dog. Keep in mind that the flashes of light that come with big fireworks displays can be scary too. Consider a method to darken any windows nearby or shield the safe place with a cover if necessary. Be aware that the low-frequency sounds of thunder are physically impossible to mute with the amount of absorbent material we can use at home. But being underground can usually help a bit, so basements are a good option for some dogs. Get the best protection you can in a basement or your most internal room. Despite the marketing claims, dog crates with walls a few inches thick can’t dampen low-frequency sounds significantly. Putting a soft cover on a crate does nothing to prevent the sounds of thunder from entering, although it may cause an auditorily cozy feeling because it deadens some of the reverberant sound in the space.

4. Play sound or music
Experiment with sound masking or music to find out what is most helpful for your situation. Try some kind of recorded white noise, natural noise, or music to mask the pops and booms. (Even a noisy food toy can be helpful.) This approach is evidence-based and called sound masking. Start working on it today.

And here’s a tip: the lower the frequencies included in the masking or music, the better it can hide those low-pitched booms (Kinsler, Frey, Coppens, & Sanders, 1999, p. 318–320). So if your dogs are already habituated to pounding rock music or some other music with a lot of bass or percussion, play it! It can mask some of the scary noises from outside your house more effectively. Taiko drumming is great if your dogs are accustomed to it. You can buy a few songs and loop them or find some on YouTube. But first, be absolutely certain that the music itself doesn’t scare your dogs. If they are already sensitive to booms, it probably will.

Household appliances can help. Some floor fans hit fairly low frequencies and can be helpful. You can run the dryer (no heat) with a pair of sports shoes in it for some booms that will probably be familiar and not scary. You’ll need to find the line of best fit for your dogs.

You can also try the Bang-Dog Playlist from Triplet Noir Studios. These are heavy metal selections (be aware that some of the language is not family-friendly). Before anyone mentions it: heavy metal has not ranked well in the dogs and music studies, tending to make shelter dogs more agitated. That’s not surprising. People might find it almost sacrilegious that I am suggesting heavy metal. But if you play it already and your dogs are fine with it, they are habituated. In that case, these playlists could be the perfect thing for you.

5. Practice going out
Make a plan for taking your dog out to potty. Do you know when the noise is usually at its worst and can you work around that? Are your fences and/or leash and harness secure? Dogs who are usually sedate have been known to panic and run off on noisy holidays. Don’t let that happen.  Keep your gates locked, your dogs’ ID tags on, and put some redundancy into your safety system.

6. Comfort your dog if that helps
LOSE that idea that there’s something wrong with comforting your dog if that’s what your dog wants. Helping a dog through a tough time is not “coddling.” Assess what is most helpful to your dog: a cuddle, food after every thunderclap, some lap time, sweet talk, being in their crate with a food toy, or hiding by themselves in a secluded place. Then help them do it.

The best part of thunderstorms: spray cheese!
The best part of noisy holidays for Summer was spray cheese!

Check out lots more resources and tips on my page “You Can’t Reinforce Fear.

Another good resource is this article by Val Hughes: My Dog Fears Fireworks and Thunderstorms—What Should I Do To Help?

Thanks for reading!

Reference

Kinsler, L. E., Frey, A. R., Coppens, A. B., & Sanders, J. V. (1999). Fundamentals of Acoustics (4th ed.). Wiley.

© Eileen Anderson 2015 

The Best Thing I Ever Taught My Dog

The Best Thing I Ever Taught My Dog

Bold claim, eh? But almost 10 years later, I think I am safe making it. Clara learned other things, like how to be around people other myself, that were more important. But those things were either trained directly by or supervised by my phenomenal trainer. This one I thought up and executed myself, and it has paid off ever since.

I classically conditioned Summer’s barking to predict puppy Clara’s favorite treat, which was spray cheese. That stuff is still very high on the list, so high I learned to make a substitute when I could no longer get it.

I did this conditioning because I was worried that Clara would pick up my dog Summer’s reactive habits. Summer was anxious and startled easily. She was fearful of most men, people coming on the porch (e.g., deliveries), and most of all, delivery trucks. She hated those trucks. I had never been able to classically condition her to them because I was not home all day. So she had plenty of exposures that were not paired with great things. I did make some inroads later but could never mitigate it completely.

Feral Clara was very much at risk for picking up fears and fearful habits since she already had a bucketload of them. But they didn’t include delivery trucks. She was remarkably calm about vehicles and machinery. And being a puppy, she hadn’t learned yet to join into bark-fests automatically, as so many adolescent and adult dogs do.

I figured I had a chance to get a foot in the door.

The classical response grew operant components of reorientation to me, followed by a recall. Pretty cool to have a dog come running to you when another dog barks, rather than joining into the mayhem!

How It Started

Here is Clara at less than one year old. The conditioned response was already strong.

How It Is Now: Nine Years Later

I have maintained the classical pairing. This is a response of Clara’s I highly value for her mental health. Of course, I don’t always have ultra-high-value stuff on my person. Over the years, I have tended to scale the value of the treat. When Zani was alive, Clara got some kibble when she barked. Ditto with my friend’s Chihuahua mix, who barks a lot. Neither of those was particularly alarming to Clara, but they fit in the barking category, so she got a little something for those.

But any other dog barking means great stuff for Clara. When she and I are outdoors these days, I am ready with it. We have dogs next door in both directions and two more who are often visible from the yard. In the winter, I generally have a tube of my faux spray cheese mix out on the porch. It’s safe from going bad for a few days when the weather is cold. Now, in the heat, I have a plastic container of soft cat food treats.

Clara does fine with the dogs on one side, a sweet border collie mix and a petite (100 lbs) Great Dane. She doesn’t like it when they get noisy, but still generally ignores them. But on the other side, we have new dogs. Two goldendoodles, plus more doodles and retriever types that come with visiting family members quite often. And though they are dog-friendly, the doodles in particular tend to stand erect and stare, which bothers Clara no end.

These dogs are friendly and curious, but can you imagine how this appears to dog-selective Clara?

However, her conditioned response still holds. I’ve taken lots of videos of her “barking recall” over the years, but the following video is one of my favorites. It happened last fall. Clara and I were in the backyard doing our version of nose work. She was searching for a toilet paper tube with some treats in it. She knew the neighbor dogs were out there at the fence and had seen them staring but was still happy to search. And I had hidden the tube in the part of the yard away from the dogs.

Check out the video for Clara’s operant and classical responses when a dog barks at her.

The Ethics

Little extrovert Zani apparently barked to see who was around in the neighborhood

Dogs bark for all sorts of reasons; I’m not going to try to list them. But converting the sound of a dog bark to predict food rather than to function as a prompt for a social interaction, whether affiliative or aggressive, was not an easy thing. I was pushing back against some very strong, natural dog behaviors. Was this OK for me to do?

Classical conditioning is a paradox. On one hand, when you are doing it well, it is so non-intrusive that the dog doesn’t even “know” training is happening, not in the way they seem to know about operant-leaning training sessions. And although operant behaviors will be there immediately in classical conditioning, the dog never has to “work” for the food when we are following a classical protocol. They can’t get it wrong. Once they experience the trigger, the food is going to appear, whatever they do.

On the other hand, in this case, I was interfering with a basic and natural dog response. Barking certainly seems to be a social behavior, one that triggers predictable types of responses from other dogs. One could call it intrusive on my part to step in.

But you know what? I am fine with this decision. When we take a dog into our lives, the training we do is not just for us. The training benefits the dog in helping them thrive in this weird human world and develop behaviors that pay off for them and don’t drive us nuts or endanger anybody. This training was beneficial to her. I wasn’t even thinking about my own convenience when I trained it. I wanted to protect her from catching a particular fear.

Summer barked from fear

Clara is easily aroused. Since we worked so hard and exclusively on getting her OK with humans in her early years, some reactivity to dogs has crept in. Without the early bark-conditioning, she would likely have a lot more unpleasant experiences in her life. And her life would be much more limited. Just today, I took her for a walk around the neighborhood. (By the way, this is a Big Deal that Clara can do this.) Whenever we go out, without fail, we get barked at by dogs behind fences and dogs looking out windows and glass doors. A few of them pound on the windows with their paws as they bark. Clara either looks to me for a treat, or ignores them as she chooses another reinforcing activity, such as exploring sniffing. The classical pairing gave us a head start against likely leash reactivity. And indeed, the potential for reactive behavior is not completely erased. Back home, when the neighbor dogs catch us unawares, Clara will indeed run to the fence for the beginning of a fearsome “let’s bark in each other’s faces” session. But she interrupts herself almost immediately, or if she doesn’t, I do. So yes, there are big seeds for reactive behavior there. But the classical pairing, the reinforcement of operant behaviors, and the maintenance have prevented them from growing into a big extended aggressive response.

Yes, I have interfered with her natural dog reaction. I interfered, just as we do when we house train dogs, train them not to chew indiscriminately, and take steps to mitigate the natural behavior of resource guarding. And in this case, I did it entirely for her.

Other Types of Classical Conditioning for Puppies

Marge Rogers and I recently released our new book, Puppy Socialization: What It Is and How to Do It. We have a whole chapter on how puppies learn, including through classical conditioning. The book made me think of juxtaposing these “then” and “now” videos of Clara. It’s also made me realize that one of the things I love about the topic of puppy socialization is that so much of it is based on classical conditioning: building positive, happy associations with new stuff. It’s a gift you can give to a puppy, or a grown dog if you are playing catch-up. Sometimes you don’t have to keep up the pairing religiously. Once a puppy (especially in their sensitive period for socialization) recovers from having a mild fear response to something in the environment, other reinforcers can come into play. I watched that happen with Clara with many things. But for a dog with fearful tendencies who didn’t get the best start in life, it really pays off if you do keep up the 1:1 pairing. I think I made the right decision with the dog barks.

Related Posts

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Puppy Socialization Book Is Now Available

Puppy Socialization Book Is Now Available

Beau, 11 weeks


Puppy Socialization: What It Is and How to Do It, by Marge Rogers and myself, is now available at Amazon and several other e-book vendors (with more to come)! We think it’s already a steal at its list price, $9.99, but it’s 20% off for the whole month of June. You can purchase 63,000 words, 50+ photos, and access to 50+ linked videos for $7.99.


Clara, 11 weeks

This book is why the lights have been off for an unprecedented two months in my blog! Late at night sometimes I work on some posts—it’s impossible for me not to write blog posts—but I haven’t had the brain cells to polish them. Polishing the puppy book is all Marge and I have been doing for most of that time period!


Tinker, 10 weeks


We are very proud of this book. It was a huge endeavor and we and hope there is something in it for every reader.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Photo Credits

  • Beau: Blanche Axton
  • Clara: Eileen Anderson
  • Tinker: Marge Rogers

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