Dr. AmyCook, PhD., joins me to talk about dogs with noise sensitivity. What can you do about it? Is it treatable? We talk about all that and more!
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we'll be talking to Dr. Amy Cook.
Amy has been training dogs for nearly 25 years and has been specializing in the rehabilitation of shy and fearful dogs for over 15 years. She's the creator of The Play Way, her process for helping dogs learn to cope with the world around them. She's also a certified dog behavior consultant, a long-standing professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, and has attended all four Chicken Camps in Hot Springs, Arkansas, taught by Bob Bailey.
Amy returned to school in 2006 to get her PhD in psychology from UC Berkeley. Her research there focused on the dog/human relationship and its effect on problem-solving strategies dogs employ. She also recently started a blog at playwaydogs.com, and everyone should definitely go check it out.
Hey, Amy, welcome back to the podcast.
Amy Cook: Hi Melissa. Always good to be here. So happy that I get to talk to you about stuff again.
Melissa Breau: I'm excited to chat. To just briefly remind everyone, can you just share a little bit of information about the dogs you share your life with and what you're working on?
Amy Cook: Sure. There's over there on the couch, where you can see her, Marzipan, in her full glory, doing what she does best, which is sleep in a nice little ball. That's what she does. She had an injury a bit back, and so we're still discovering what the second half of her career will be like.
And then I have Caper, who you also can see right over my shoulder. She's a little … I don't know what, terrier something or other. She's learning agility, and she's very happy that we just bought a teeter. I now have a teeter in my yard. It's my first big, expensive piece of agility equipment, because now we get to do teeters every day. It's so exciting!
Melissa Breau: That is exciting!
Amy Cook: It is!
Melissa Breau: I want to dig into I know a topic that you've been talking about often recently: noise sensitivity. What is it? Can you describe what behaviors people might see if they have a sound-sensitive dog — both at the "slightly sound sensitive" end and the "extreme" ends of the spectrum?
Amy Cook: It's an interesting topic because this runs the gamut. Everyone has a different experience with noise sensitivity, and it's one of those dog trainer catch-all terms, like reactivity, where we may mean a lot of different things about it, and in this sense I think that's OK.
It does run from the slightest noise in the category of things I'm afraid of, makes me panic and salivate and run to dive under the bed, or sit there catatonically, or it might mean I have some slight trepidation about that sound out there and I'm not exactly sure what to think about it.
They may turn to us in those times, and I think what we most don't want is for it to get to the extreme. It might already be there for a given dog, but it's one of those things where, because it can be so impactful in their life, we don't get to control sounds, we don't get to change where dogs are when sounds happen as much as we'd like, that we need to take almost any presentation of this really seriously. Behaviors can range and vigilance is often missed by us, I think, where a dog hears something, puts their ears a little bit back, shows a little bit of a worried face, but then maybe it's gone before we saw them worry about it.
So I think doing a little bit of protective noise work, as I like to call it — not the protective part, but the noise work part — can never hurt. Teaching a dog that noises are just harbingers of fun times is a good and protective thing to do, even in dogs that don't seem to have a problem just yet. So it really runs the gamut.
Melissa Breau: Is it typically tied to a specific noise? Do folks usually come to you and they're like, "Hey, this particular beeping thing," or is it more generally just noise? What have you seen?
Amy Cook: I do see both of those. There's definitely dogs that feel like anything sort of sudden that makes a noise is worth worrying about and is scary for them. And I don't know if, when we have "environmentally sensitive dogs," if part of that or a lot of that isn't just that environments have a lot of strange noises in them and if it isn't noise sensitivity folded into general environmental sensitivity.
So I do see that a lot, where we don't have just one specific noise, it's just this, and all the rest of the noises "I'm OK with all of the suddenness." I see dogs like that as being tense in a lot of ways all the time. Not a hundred percent of the time, of course, but dogs who are tightly tuned can be affected by all sorts of unexpected noises in the environment.
And then there are dogs who have very specific triggers. The ones that we commonly hear about or think of are the ones who are afraid of large booming noises that we find on Fourth of July or New Year's Eve, and then the thunderstorm-type noises, because those are the big, very dramatic, out of the norm, completely scary, gunshot-type noises.
But it doesn't cover all of them, because a lot of dogs are afraid of, weirdly, beeping or high-pitched metallic or electronic sounds, so the sounds from your microwave, the sounds from an electronic timer, sounds from a whistle at flyball, from a timer at flyball trials, sounds you might make in the kitchen that are high-pitched, something metallic hitting your kettle, for example. Those can be really distressing to dogs.
And then I would say anything that your dog hasn't had a lot of exposure to. Maybe you've moved somewhere … I don't live somewhere where there are thunderstorms, so it's not something that I tend to see a problem with, but if I were to move to places with summertime thunderstorms, which is pretty common across the country, I would expect them to feel a bit sensitive to anything that's new like that. So noises can run the gamut too, just like the behavior that shows from them. We never really know what it's going to be probably until we see it, but again, not a bad idea to prevent it if we can.
Melissa Breau: Is it typically something people see show up early in the dog's life? Is it something they have forever? Do they develop it? Do we know anything about what causes it?
Amy Cook: I don't personally know anything super-scientific about what causes it, but as a practitioner of helping dogs, I see a lot of dogs develop it later in life. It certainly won't be all dogs, but it's so many of them that we have that sort of dog trainer lore of, if someone says, "Hey, my dog has become noise sensitive," the question you first ask them is, "Is your dog 7?" Because it's so super-common that somewhere in middle life, middle age, and that's of course going to range for breed, it can just develop. It's some kind of brain change where there's a noise processing change, the areas of the brain that process noise, are they changing, are they aging, is something happening there?
Also some say, "It's been seven years now, you've had seven years of storms, seven years of fireworks, you've had them long enough that you could sensitize." It could be something like that, although I would expect to see it happen more gradually if that were true. But that's not necessarily the way it would present. Maybe you're hiding it, or you're dealing, you're coping, and now you just can't cope, and so you show it. That's possible.
Or it could be that hearing is changing around that time, and so the way things sound have just become a bit distorted. But this is just speculation. It's hard to say.
You can certainly have noise sensitivity your whole life. It can be a thing that shows in puppyhood or adolescence as a thing they just don't know how to process and don't have a positive opinion about, and they definitely need our help at that point, for sure, so they can get through that.
I think dogs who develop it later in life, who didn't have a problem before, can accept and change, I think, at least in my experience, more quickly from an intervention because they've had a fair amount of time in their life of doing OK with it, and maybe just learning something new about whatever this new sound feels like to them can stick pretty well.
But of course if it shows up in puppies or young dogs, we really want to get on it, because we certainly don't want the dog to have a lifetime of feeling terrible about the normal sounds of their environment.
Melissa Breau: I know from reading through some of the things you've written, this is one of those problems that often gets worse if folks ignore it. What are some ways that it can escalate? What might that look like?
Amy Cook: It is one of those things that I feel is really important to get on right away, and I suppose I would apply that argument to almost any fear-based behavior problem. Dogs are suffering when they're afraid. If they're afraid often, that's a terrible feeling, so we want to get on almost any behavior. I don't mean to overly highlight noise in that way.
But one thing that happens to noise phobias, noise sensitivities, that doesn't seem to happen at least the same way as, say, a fear of strange men, is that it escalates and can escalate really quickly. A dog who shows some sensitivity to a beep, beeping sounds — say they were in your house when your smoke alarm batteries went bad. Now it's been six months, they need replacing, and it beeped all day while you were at work and they couldn't escape that. You could come home to a dog who's sensitized to that sound.
Of course not all of them, but some will, and then they start hearing anything that's similar to that and feeling the same triggered way. And then things that are not terribly similar to it, such as the microwave beep, which would be similar, but now a fork on a plate can do it. Once you're afraid of noise and you're vigilant about noise, dogs can become more and more sensitive very, very quickly, whereas fear of men tends to stay relatively stable, if you control the trigger some and nothing much is happening.
It's not like that's going to make them better, but they're not likely to get massively worse over the next few months, whereas in noise sensitivity that's coming up really quickly, you need to get on top of it because it can spread too quickly, and once it's all over the place, and as most noises or many noises that are sudden, we really do have to be talking about medical intervention because of how difficult that is.
So if you see something in your dog that shows he might be getting a little sensitive to the banging of the metal door at that trial that you go to, or the gunshots that you know you're going to hear a lot in hunting season, you want to get on it right away and really quickly, just in case this is going to be one that spreads to a point where your dog will be suffering.
Melissa Breau: Looking at your syllabus for your class on this, it looks like there are a few pieces that you use to help sound-sensitive dogs — starting with classical conditioning. I want to talk about that, but can you just start by explaining what classical conditioning is, for anyone who might not be familiar with the terminology?
Amy Cook: Yes, definitely. There's two models we use in dog training, or in changing behavior in dogs. One is the one that everyone is familiar with, whether the terms or not, where we reward things we like and we punish things we don't like. We of course try to minimize any of those experiences, but that's part of the model of operant conditioning, and it's about responding to a behavior and having that behavior work or not work for the dog.
In classical conditioning, it happens irrespective of a dog's behavior. What you're trying to draw a picture of the dog, draw the line between for the dog, is that, "Hey, this thing that just happened is a predictor of this next thing that's going to happen, and that's it. It doesn't matter what you do about it. You can have any reaction at all, but these two things are tied."
When it comes to noise work, which I'm saying distinctly so it doesn't sound like nosework — it's just a cute thing I like to call it, noise work — when it comes to working with noises, what you're trying to say is, "Hey dog, this sound that you hear — you don't know it yet, but it's actually the thing that comes right before this other thing that you might enjoy."
If you can set things up such that they come to that conclusion, they see the connection between those two, that noise that has been troubling them up until now will take on new meaning. It's like, "That thing I don't like … oh wait … but doesn't that always mean that this other thing is going to happen?" When you can crack that door open a bit and let them see that the relationship exists, and it's not just, "Hey, the noise happened and now you're just scared," but "The noise happens and now you have something to look forward to," it can help them change their reactions and their feelings about the whole thing.
So classical conditioning is just saying, "I will draw a connection between one event and another event, one stimulus and another stimulus, technically, and through drawing that connection for you so that you can see that relationship, it can help you, dog, feel better," or at least take new meaning from the sound that before maybe had a pretty terrible meaning and give it something that hopefully has a positive meaning, if we can get in there carefully and do it just right.
I do it mathematically, I guess … that's not fair to say because there's no math involved. Don't be afraid! There will be no numbers! But I do it strictly. I really think about the relationships of those two elements, those two pieces that I'm trying to put together, the strength of the noise and the strength of the thing I'm following it with, so that I'm much more able to make that conclusion for the dog as clear and as powerful as I can. So it's doing classical conditioning, but the way I do it for this class is very strict and very specific so that I can have the best bang for my buck, if you will, in doing it.
Melissa Breau: I want to talk about that a little more. I think people who ARE familiar with the term classical conditioning, you're talking about, most of the time, a visual stimulus — something where you use a lot of distance and it's something the dog can SEE. How does that change or how is it the same when you're talking about a noise instead of something visual?
Amy Cook: I had to give that a lot of thought when I wanted to work specifically with this and have a way I think that everybody can follow and have it step by step, because when it's something you see, you do fully control the strength of it.
I can put the thing right in the environment right when I need to, or have you look at it right when it would be appropriate, and I can play with strengths a little better than I can with noises, because noises, maybe, whether they're loud or soft, might already be so disliked by a dog that you can't get it down to be safe enough to experience while you're teaching them something new.
Because if you just have noises happen, and then try to follow them with something good, you're very likely to get a dog who says, "Oh my god, that was so awful. Oh look, it's followed by something good that I don't care about right now because I feel so awful because oh my God that just happened," and then you're not going to get any change. So you do have to play with these things.
And with noises, yeah, sure, there's many of them you can make smaller. I know people who have CDs and they play them really lightly, but what I like to do instead is teach them the entire framework of how noise work, noise therapy, will go on sounds that are not frightening at all, so therefore I completely control the upsetting stimulus by not having it be there at all.
I teach them the framework of noise therapy, and once they really have that, I can attach the entire therapeutic picture to any noise I want to, starting with, of course, the most very neutral noises that I've got. And then I can attach it to all sorts of unexpected noises. I dropped something — "Oh, look, we're going to do our noise therapy." In time, when they're very, very good at putting those connections together, I can start simulating and then eventually really using the noises that they already have a negative opinion about.
I find that teaching a dog out of context is one of the most important parts of dog training. It's very important in this work because you cannot upset a dog before you try to make him feel better. You want him to feel better from neutral, not from "I'm already upset," and now you have to dial it back. So training out of context is super, super important, and I find that true in all sorts of dog training, we mostly don't honor what we train. People ask me all the time, "I don't know if I can simulate this thing my dog's afraid of, so I don't know if we can do the work." I'm like, "I don't want you to simulate that thing your dog's afraid of. Don't worry, we're going to do a lot of work just fine." Out of context is really the key there.
Melissa Breau: Another piece mentioned on your syllabus and that you pull in here, and you lead to a little bit in there, this idea of having the dogs make sounds themselves. What's the purpose of that, and can you talk about that a little bit?
Amy Cook: Part of what makes anyone feel better, feel more secure, or feel like you can handle, or cope with, or feel OK about something is having some control over it. It's not something we can always give a dog in every scenario, but I am always looking for where I can apply that. Where in any program I'm doing with a dog are there choice points where I can say, "Hey, you can have some agency here, you can choose to do some of this stuff, you can drive whether we continue or not," where can I put that.
In working with noise, not all dogs have to do this, it's not appropriate for every particular case that comes forward, but for given dogs — especially in the class, I assess whether it would be helpful — for given dogs it can be really powerful to have them make a noise themselves and then see that that triggers the entire therapeutic sequence, that they get to go have fun in these ways that we have for them.
When sounds just happen, when you're afraid of something and it could just happen any old time, you don't know when it's going to be, so having them at least be able to make a very safe, very neutral, very totally OK sound for them and show them that it connects to it is, I think, a kindness. It gives them a chance to have some agency. I also do it even if they're not going to make the sounds. When we first make our sounds to teach them the therapeutic piece, I show them the object I'm going to make sound with. They can sniff it, they can investigate it, they can nose it, roll it, play with it, whatever. So it's neutral, and I show them right before I make a sound with it, like, say, dropping it an inch on carpet, barely making a sound. I show them I'm about to do it. I make sure they're looking, and then I make the sound right clearly in front of them very simply so that nothing is surprising, nothing is coming out of the blue. Surprise is a much, much later variable that is not part of the introduction of therapy.
So I show them how I'm going to do it, and I think that's one step toward giving them some control. Maybe they don't have exact control, but they have all the warning in the world, and then, if they make the sound themselves, they have total control and they know it's going to make a sound.
It's all part of an extension of "How can I help you best be an active partner in your therapy and not just a receiver," which I look for places I can do that in just about all my work, so that I can keep expanding that idea.
Melissa Breau: How do you teach them to actually go about initiating noise and avoid having them in a situation where they end up scaring themselves?
Amy Cook: Yeah, exactly. If you have a whole lot of time, if you're doing this work all by yourself, you can get that done with just about any dog.
With dogs in the class, because we have limited time and not every dog is going to need this part of it, we want dogs who can already move objects, say, with a nose touch. Can you shove something with your nose? Can you shove your toy with your nose? Can you shove a toy with your paw? Many dogs already have that, and we can completely use that.
What I like to use is treat bags that they already really like the sound of, maybe a Charlie Bears bag, it's big, crinkly, or a box, a small cardboard box you might have a small amount of crackers in or something like that, assuming again that's completely out of the category, so for a dog who's really nervous about banging outside, probably a small cardboard box on the floor is not going to be in their category.
So we start with that, and we teach them what would happen if you nudged it and it fell over. I prop it so that it's not horizontal and not vertical, but diagonal, and I'm holding it up. If they nudge it, I drop it slightly, and then it goes "bing" on the floor and I'm like, "Yay, here we go, now to our noise therapy stuff." And they're like, "Oh, I did the thing, I guess it made a noise, whatever, it was carpet, and now we get to play. That's amazing." Once they get that, many dogs can make their own noises very easily without being scared, if you pick carefully. A dog can nose a crunched-up piece of paper across something, and those do make noise.
You want to start very, very, very simply. If you start in a place where a dog is already challenged, you do it either to do the behavior or to withstand the sound it makes, you're starting behind the start line. You don't want to be triggering anything scary at all. I know, again, everybody thinks, I have to trigger it a little bit to get rid of it, and I completely disagree. I think you should teach completely out of context. So we would pick the world's quietest noisemakers, the world's safest objects, even their own toys to begin with, so that they're starting from a place of real confidence.
Melissa Breau: I know part of the process is this concept of a treat/play party. I'm noticing some students posting about it on Facebook, and I could probably guess a little bit, but can you share what it is and how it factors into all this?
Amy Cook: Absolutely. I sometimes affectionately call it a noise party. You can really call it anything. It's just the idea that you need to have an event with your dog that would be something you might do if you had just won the lottery, if your dog had just won whatever dog lotteries there are out in the world, to where whatever it is you're doing with your dog — and it can be having a bunch of food together, playing with their toys together, the options are pretty endless — it needs to be really, really exciting, and your dog has to see it's really, really exciting. I don't mean you have to be super-excited and then your dog stands there and watches you do it, but instead, your dog thinks this is the best party he or she could possibly ever have.
Most of us have some kind of reinforcement strategies for our dogs that make them really happy. In the class I've seen the favorite tennis ball, certainly, a great game of tug, I had someone in the last term do hose play, going outside and using water from a hose. I guess it's winter for most of us now, but I don't see any reason why you couldn't do it. I was like, "I don't know, I haven't tried that before," and we ran with it and the dog was like, "This is the best thing that's ever happened." And when you have in your pocket, so to speak, the best thing that's ever happened, you have a lot of power to change minds.
So we spend the first … I don't know … how-long-until-I-like-it amount of time developing some kind of noise celebration lottery-winning party, and you need to throw that party with your dog until your dog is like, "I can't believe we're doing this again! This is so amazing. Can we do it more? I love it!" I don't care what it is. It can be tossing cookies all around and they're chasing them and running back and forth. As long as their tail's up, and their face is happy, and they're sprightly running, and they have energy, and they really look forward to it, it can be literally anything that your dog likes.
And why I want it to be so big is because for me to get any movement and emotion and making a strong association, you want the second stimulus — remember, you're trying to connect two things together: one, the noise, although for us it will be very neutral noise, and the thing that follows it. The thing that follows it needs to be pretty big and impressive. It needs to make a serious impact on your mind and on your emotion, and so I want these parties to be super-exciting, really fun, and when they're that fun, they give us a lot of power to change a dog's reaction to something when we pair it with the different things we might pair it with.
So the party is really the biggest part of this, and there are a lot of details to how I connect those things that I wouldn't be able to list right here, but you have to take the whole class to get to the pieces of. But if you want to change minds and change hearts and change opinions, you have to have really, really powerful tools, and we spend a long time making sure that party is absolutely powerful enough to do that work.
Melissa Breau: So for folks struggling with this, or even just those who are interested in learning more about it, you've got both a webinar and a class coming up. Can you share a little bit about each, and who might be a good fit for it?
Amy Cook: When it comes to behavior problems, I tend to be of the opinion that everybody's a good fit in a way, because you can't … like, for my Play Way classes, you can't go wrong teaching your dog good therapeutic play, because you never know when you'll have a problem.
So in that vein, you'll never go wrong teaching your dog what could happen from sudden noises. Having a framework already in place helps a dog not draw their own conclusions that might be negative, but gives you a chance to influence it.
But certainly any dog who's showing even mild worry about some stuff that's just come up and they're not sure how to respond to it will be a good candidate, all the way to dogs who definitely have trouble with the thunderstorms and the fireworks, even though that only happens a few times a year. This is really helpful for that too, although you have to lay a lot of groundwork to get all the way up to the level where it would work for something that big. We start with very small sounds, of course, and work our way up.
The webinar is a small version of the class, sort of like this is, an introduction to all the pieces and how to put them together and why, and then of course some ideas of what to do when you can't help them because things got too big all of a sudden.
And the class, doing classical conditioning is not super-complicated. You do have to get the pieces right. You have to get each piece exactly where it goes. But that's not complicated. That's just technical. Where the power really is is in doing it a bunch of times, lots and lots and lots of times, and making sure you're doing it right lots and lots and lots of times so the dog understands that.
The good part of a class where I can be guiding you through each of the steps is that you will get the number of repetitions it takes that by the end of class your dog has an understanding of how all these things get put together and has an immediate response that's very quick to any new sound you make, and you tell them that it's noise-party time, they go, "Oh my God, lottery again? Oh my God, that's amazing."
I make sure each step of the way through the whole class that you get each of those pieces together, so by the end the relationship is very tight, and then you're just off and running and you can apply it to all sorts of different situations.
So the webinar is an introduction to how that all works, and the class would be, "Let me make sure you're getting it all together and give you a chance to get as many repetitions as you need," because the repetitions, while possibly not super-exciting — you're doing the same thing a lot, over and over again; that is where the power is in classical conditioning — you have to get a lot of them done. So I'm there to support the students in getting that done.
Melissa Breau: Last question — the one that I've been asking everyone who comes back on now. A little bit of shift in topic, but what's something you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training in general?
Amy Cook: I've been thinking a lot lately about perspective, and about a dog's perspective, and what it might be like to have your whole life be that someone trains you and someone takes care of you and someone takes you everywhere, what that actually might be like.
I'm taking a whole bunch of parenting training right now in a system called RIE, which is respectful way of raising and dealing with infant care, raising infants, and I'm astonished at the overlap, because babies also have their own perspective, but they don't get to express it to us in the same way that they will later, and dogs do and also don't get to express it to us.
So I've been lately trying to look at everything I do from the perspective of a receiver, from the perspective of the dog, and see where there are points where I could give them even more say and even more control. Even if I can't always go the way they need to go, I want to hear that they wanted to or didn't want to do that, so that I can be a much better caretaker.
It's an ongoing challenge because we have habits and we have ways we think already of how dogs are or what my dog already likes, and I have to continually — and really doing it these days — remind myself to stop, at least in the analytical phase of it all, and consider if what I think is really true, and if there isn't another way they could be perceiving this that I'm blind to, because I think that's where positive training 2.0, if I will, if you can call it that, is going: what is the dog experiencing, could they use more say, could they use more control in some of this, what would it be like if we gave them more of a voice. That's what I'm visiting a lot these days.
Melissa Breau: I like that phrase: dog training 2.0.
Amy Cook: Positive training, we're going forward! Absolutely.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Amy! This has been great.
Amy Cook: Always a pleasure. Have me on anytime.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in!
We'll be back next week, this time with Lucy Newton to talk about tracking!
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