Using behavior modification rationally
Most active behavior modification involves either of the following or a combination of the two:
- Desensitization—gradual exposure to the stimulus or sound at a level below where the patient reacts; the sound volume is slowly
increased over days or weeks as the dog continues to not react.
- Counter-conditioning—rewarding the dog for not reacting by offering a stimulus such as a food treat that competitively interferes
with dog's ability to react.
Good behavior modification programs (e.g., protocol for deference, protocol for relaxation)5,8 entail conducting basic desensitization and counter-conditioning. Clients can use basic behavior modification with a program
that involves exposing dogs to noises to which they react. Few quantitative studies examining the effects of this form of
behavior modification on noise phobias exist, but the general impression is that these types of programs, by themselves, don't
work well for dogs with fully established phobias. If the reaction to the noise or storm has just started, exposure to those
sounds using tapes, records or CDs and a good sound system that can mimic some of the vibrational changes may work. These
recordings are available from some nature-themed stores (e.g., The Nature Company, The Discovery Store). Clients can find
online many sources of noises, from storms to explosions, and many of these have been produced with the intent of using them
to desensitize dogs.
Photo 2: A dog wearing Muttmuffs. (Photo courtesy of Angela Steinker.)
However, if the reaction to noise is severe or has been ongoing for a long time, exposure to recordings of noises and storms
alone is unlikely to help and may further harm the dog. Under no circumstances should anyone continue to expose a dog to these
recordings if the dog remains at the same level of distress or becomes more distressed. In some cases, as dogs begin to improve
with drug treatment, exposure to sound recordings can help, but techniques touted as quick fixes generally don't work.
Photo 3: Human eye shades adapted for use on a dog. (Photo courtesy of Christina Shusterich.)
That said, devices that alter the dog's perception of the environment may help (see "Storm phobia solutions"). Eye shades
that permit either no light (useful for intense lightning storms and fireworks) or diffuse light can help some dogs relax.
If this is true, tinted Doggles (doggles.com) or those with mesh may help (Photo 1). Ear protection for dogs is also available in the form of Mutt Muffs (muttmuffs.com Photo 2). Some dogs gain relief from the use of any basic eye mask (Photos 3 and 4)—like those used by people on planes—that
prevents them from seeing flashes of light. Because these fit loosely, most dogs don't resist them. Dogs should become used
to these when not distressed. Any set of reactions that can be diminished will help the dog to improve overall.
Photo 4: Dogs can learn to become accustomed to human eye shades.
Next month in part two of this series, see what drugs may be beneficial in dogs with storm phobias.
Dr. Overall, faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, has given hundreds of presentations on behavioral medicine. She is a diplomate
of the American College of Veterinary Behavior (ACVB) and is board-certified by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS) as an Applied