Do you know all those little electronic dings and tings your computer and phone make? For the past 3 – 6 months or so, Stella obviously didn’t like them: the computer would ting, and she would move away from the sound, wait and then come back.

“I should counter condition that,” my behavior consultant brain says. I don’t cause . . . well, you know, I’d have to do all the things I tell my clients they need to do.  And it’s a pain.  (Yes, clients, I know what I ask you to do is annoying because it means you have to change your behavior.  It’s a pain—I’d rather stay the same also.)

The other night, in the midst of a snugglefest with all her 70 pounds in my lap, I get a text.  DING!

She jolts off me like she was shocked.  She leaves the room. She doesn’t return.

I still don’t think too much of it, but did notice that the reaction was bigger than I’ve seen before.

Around ten minutes later, I’m getting ready for bed.  First, it’s time for our ritual bedtime peanut butter treatfest.

She doesn’t come.  She usually races in from wherever she is hanging out when the peanut butter jar comes out.  She will leave her relentless hunt for squirrels to come in for peanut butter.  But, there I am, jar of peanut butter in hand, with no Stella.

Uh oh.

I go upstairs, and I find her under the bed. Now, she does like it under there and doesn’t use it only as a place to hide. But she’ll thwack her tail if I talk to her and come out if I ask her to.

No thwack, no movement. And I’m standing in the room with an open jar of peanut butter.  She won’t come out when I call her.

Uh oh.

Sound sensitivities are serious, and when they worsen, it is time to take IMMEDIATE action.  I knew two things:  (1) she would need behavioral medication and (2) I can’t be objective enough with my own dog, so I need other eyes on this with me.

I called to get a consult with Dr. Wailani Sung, the Seattle area’s veterinary behaviorist. We refer to each other, and she had already seen Stella for help with firework and thunder phobia.

Treatment Plan, Day 1:  Keep the Dog Feeling Safe

The first thing that’s important with working with a fearful dog, as Debbie Jacobs from Fearful Dogs always says: keep the dog feeling safe.

Step 1:  Medication

The first step in “keeping her safe” was a prescription for Sertraline and Xanax.  We use Xanax already for situational noise phobias like thunder or fireworks.  The Sertraline is a new medication for her.

High-frequency electronic sounds are hard to avoid in a home, particularly one which has my office. So for those ooopsies where the terrifying noise may occur, let’s get her on medication that will help her cope and reduce the anxiety. Since Sertraline is an SSRI that can take up to 8 weeks to take effect, the Xanax is for use to bridge her while Sertraline can start to work.

I did not hesitate to medicate her.  The behavior modification will NOT work if she’s in a constant state of fear.  Karen Overall considers sound phobias medical emergencies.  They can generalize and become more sensitive to the noises fast.

Dogs with sound sensitivities are not just a little nervous—it’s panic.  Enough panic so that my normally happy, bouncy, exuberant dog will not come out from under the bed when there is peanut butter available.  In her home, where she’s lived since she was 8 weeks.  That’s serious fear.  I hope I never feel that afraid.

Step 2:  Preventing the trigger from happening

Next step is stopping the noise. If the noise creates peanut-butter-avoiding fear, why would I ever want to hear that ting until she is desensitized and counter-conditioned to it?  (More on CC/DS in later posts).

The first thought that came into my head is one that most of my clients must think when I tell them what they need to do to keep the dog’s environment clear of the scary things: “Oh, geez, how can I do that?” Two iPhones, an iPad, an Apple Watch, and three laptops. I work on computers or devices a lot of the time.  They all ding and ting.

At one point yesterday I started to count how much dinging and tinging was going on—much more than I ever realized.  Each of those sounds that were innocuous to me was aversive and anxiety producing for her.  Suddenly I realize that she doesn’t join me in the office in the daytime too much unless I get up and away from my computer.  This has been worsening for some time, and I just didn’t pick up on the clues.

Then I told myself to suck it up (no, I don’t ever say that to clients) and figure it out.  Keep her safe.  So now:

  • The phones are on do-not-disturb, which means they will make no sounds, even incoming calls.  The phone call noise doesn’t seem to bother her, but I just want to reduce all potential triggers now.
  • The computers are muted.  No dings and tings.
  • If I need to use the sound, then I unmute and re-mute as soon as I stop watching it.

Day 1 Happenings

Woke around 7 to the normal ecstasy of starting the day.  Stella gets a Xanax and her first dose of Sertraline.

Stella on Xanax is like watching a drunk dog.  The drug disinhibits so she is delightfully naughty and even more snuggly.  She stayed closer to me today, sought attention often.  She did stay in my office more often, which is a good sign as that is where most of the “bad noise” happens.

Oh, and she also got some good food containers out of the garbage and feasted on them (disinhibition—the naughty wins out).  I also got a serious amount of face licking, which is not usual for her.

How did I do with removing the bad sounds from our environment?  I’d say I got a B-.  This mute/unmute/mute again is not regular behavior.  So I found myself unmuting to hear something, and then completely forgetting to re-mute.  I typically caught it sometime later, but a few times the tings happened.  Fortunately, with the Xanax in her, she noticed the noise and froze momentarily, but did not leave the room and recovered quickly.

One time, I was in the garage next to the office, and I heard a series of emails come in on Outline.  I forgot to mute again.  It didn’t phase her.  Without medication, she needs to have two floors in between us before she doesn’t react to the noise.

Very glad I got some Xanax in her today.

I did notice a few times that when I picked up my phone, even with no noise, she started to move away.  Ah—so now the fear of the sound has spread to me just holding the phone at times.

New Realization

Dogs (and humans) can feel kind of weird when adjusting to an SSRI. I always advise my clients to keep their dog’s world smaller (and safer) while she adjusts.  I think that’s easy peasy for me.  We can hang out in the yard and house.

And then it hits me.  Hmmm, Stella is my neutral dog.  She helps often with reactive and fearful dog clients.  I can’t put her in those situations when she may not feel herself.  Bummer.  That’s not only an inconvenience but also a business challenge to address.

Next Steps

  • I am putting a small post-it note on all my laptops to remind myself to re-mute.
  • I am putting a sign on my front door asking people to shut off their phones or put them on DND before coming into the house.  If I don’t do that, I know I am going to forget to tell people.
  • I will start to work on creating a positive conditioned emotional response to the appearance of the phone.
  • I will record the tings and dings to create sound files that I can use for counter-conditioning and desensitization.

 Time Spent Today

Shutting sounds off computers:  15 minutes

Giving Stella meds:  2 minutes

Explaining plan to my assistant:  5 minutes

Mute/unmuting:  2 minutes

Total time:  approximately 24 minutes

See you tomorrow!