My Pet World: Conditioning can ease a dog's fears over noise

March 01, 2011|By Steve Dale

Question: Sophie, our Brittany, is afraid of the toaster. She'll try to climb into my husband's lap trembling, or she'll run away, ducking as if someone is shooting in her direction whenever the toasts pops. Can we resolve this problem, or should we just stop eating toast? — D.M., Stafford, Texas

Answer: Dogs can develop all sorts of inappropriate fears. It might be that early on, someone tried to train Sophie as a gun dog, and using force made matters worse. Now, Sophie generalizes about all sorts of sounds. However, if her fear is centered on the toaster alone, my guess is that the sounds it makes once startled your pup. Then, you may have paid attention to Sophie, unintentionally reinforcing the fear when you only meant to comfort her.

In any case, the fix (if the sound of the toaster is Sophie's sole fear) is desensitization and counter-conditioning. Begin by placing Sophie's food bowl in a room far away from the toaster. As Sophie eats, pop the toaster. If she responds with even the slightest hint of fear, she's too close. Once Sophie is chowing down without a care in the world, gradually move her dish closer and closer to the toaster. Take your time. This conditioning program could take several weeks, but eventually, this problem should be "toast."


If Sophie fears other loud noises, like the dishwasher, thunderstorms, cars backfiring, etc., contact a veterinary behaviorist or a certified dog behavior consultant.

Q: My newly-adopted dog is beginning to understand house training. Now, how do I get him to signal me with "woof" when he's gotta go? — K.L., Indianapolis

A: Dog trainer Krista Cantrell, author of "Housetrain Your Dog Now" (Plume Books, New York, NY; 2000; $12.95), says that when your dog barks, say "good" and let him out. At first, choose a time when you know he's likely to do his business.

Cantrell is partial to draping jingle bells over the doorknob year round so she can tell when her dog need to go out. Teach your pup to ring the bells by smearing peanut butter on them; when he takes a lick, the bells ring. Then you open the door.

However, many dogs are pretty smart and learn to jingle those bells just to get out to play! One reader wrote about her fun-loving Labrador jingling bells in the middle of the night.

A better solution might be to encourage your dog to bark when you think he might have to do his business. Then put on the leash and take him out. Limit these outings to business only, with no time for play.

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