Desensitisation and counter conditioning - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Desensitisation and counter conditioning

DERICK HUMPHREY of Sounds Therapy 4 Pets, outlines the Sounds Scary three- stage programme for treating sound- phobic pets

WHOOSH, bang, zzzzzzzzzzz –
Guy Fawkes, Halloween, Bonfire
Night, a time of explosive
celebrations which will cause terror
for many pets in the UK.

Over 1.5 million of the 6 million
dogs throughout the UK will now
experience sheer terror as they try to
cope with their phobias over the next
few weeks and many cats will also suffer in
exactly the same way.

Behavioural
experts from Sounds
Therapy 4 Pets have
been providing
therapy discs that
come with a full set of
instructions for Pet
Phobia assessment and
treatment, so that clients
can treat their own pets.

Phobias can strike pets at any time
and come in various degrees of
severity. A phobia is an intense fear of
something that actually causes us to do
harm to ourselves or to things around
us.

Fireworks, thunder, gunshots,
traffic noises are the main everyday
phobias that pets suffer from although
there are some rarer ones such as a fear of mobile phone noises,
fluorescent clothing, kites, plastic bags
or the hiss of air brakes. Phobias can
develop out of the blue, one day fine,
the next terrified. It is important to
recognise the symptoms early on so
behavioural treatment can begin as
quickly as possible.

Sarah Heath and Jon Bowen from
Sounds Therapy 4 Pets hold animal behaviour
clinics throughout the
UK, and have seen
cases where pets
cause thousands of
pounds worth of
damage to their
owners’ homes prior
to undergoing the Sounds Scary therapy
programme.

Ninety per cent of dogs with a
sound phobia of fireworks are also
afraid of thunder or gunshots, so the
Sounds Scary programme includes
treatment for all of these phobias.

The programme comes in a CD
format (two CDs) with a detailed
questionnaire to assess your animal’s
phobia, an instruction manual and
information about where to get
additional support if needed.

Many dogs learn to predict when a
phobic event is happening as they have
learned what goes on around that time
or recognise the smell of bonfire
smoke in the air.

Once a phobia is established, it can
easily generalise and the animal can
become fearful of many noises such as
footsteps on wooden floors, the ping
of a microwave and even the sound of
the gas boiler switching on. Then the
phobia goes from being a once a year
fear to a daily terror, which is why it is
so important to treat problems early.

Unbeknown to them, owners can
actually make their pet’s phobias worse
by rewarding the animal with cuddles
for irrational behaviour or by reacting
with anger.

Obviously, owners
who try to soothe their
dogs or get frustrated
with them would really
rather do something
constructive to get rid
of the phobia. So, how
can we help owners
help their pets once
they have sound
phobias?

The Sounds Scary
three-stage programme
has been developed to
treat phobic pets using
desensitisation and
counter conditioning.

Desensitisation
works by simply quietly
playing a specially
designed CD of the sounds the dog is
fearful of each day for 5-10 minutes
and then building the sound level up
gradually until the animal stops
reacting to the sounds even at the
loudest level.

Counter conditioning is where you
train the dog to react happily when he
or she hears the noises.

This is done by either playing with
or feeding the dog while it listens to
the noises on the CD – it will then
associate the noises with a pleasurable
experience.

Each animal is different and the
key is not to rush this programme but
the phobia assessment questionnaire
included in the package means that
owners can find out how severe the
problem is before starting treatment
and can seek help if there is an indication that their dog might need
medical therapy as well as behavioural.
Sounds Scary discs have been recorded
and designed to make the whole
treatment process as safe, fast and
effective as possible.

Sarah and Jon advise pet owners
not to begin the programme until the
firework season is over but offer the
following solutions to help pets
through the forthcoming weeks:

How to help your pet during the
firework season

  • Create a refuge for your pet if he
    doesn’t already have one. Dogs usually
    like to hide in a corner, behind a sofa,
    in a bathroom or in an under-stair
    cupboard. The refuge should be dark and quiet so all windows should be
    kept shut and curtains
    closed if it is in a
    room. If you install a
    DAP diffuser close to
    the refuge your dog
    may find it easier to
    settle.
  • Provide your pet
    with something to
    hide under, e.g. a
    couple of blankets.
  • Play some
    background music that
    your dog hears you
    playing regularly and
    does not object to.
  • On the night of
    fireworks give your dog an early evening meal of overcooked boiled brown rice with a
    little marmite added for flavour (and
    to enrich it with vitamin B12). This
    will make your dog feel more relaxed,
    but take care if your dog is known to
    have digestive problems!
  • Don’t try to soothe your dog, just act
    happy while the fireworks are going
    off and give your dog praise when he
    or she gets over the noises and starts
    to act normally again.

If your pet is particularly distressed
we recommend you talk to your vet
and discuss short-acting medication
that will make the dog feel less anxious
and forget the scary events that have
happened. These drugs should ideally
be given before the fireworks begin so
they take effect while the dog is still
calm.

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