Lyra’s biggest sound aversion, by far, is to garbage trucks and buses. She does not react when she sees one, even if she can hear it drive past. Her reaction (anywhere from bolting to shutting down) is to specific sounds of starting or stopping: the engine revving up or down, the air brakes, the arm of the garbage truck moving (air pressure?).
Yet it’s proving very difficult to counter-condition her to the sound.
Plan in 2016 (unsuccessful)
From week 1 (beginning March 19, 2016) I attempted to set up a CC/DS method specific to garbage truck sounds. I had made a recording (I was quite pleased with it, as it “captured” all the typical sounds of a City of Toronto garbage truck on our street). Michael then put 30 seconds of silence on the front — and doubled the set, to create almost 2 minutes of sound. The silent stretch would give me time to attach my ipod to the speakers and resume play with Lyra (ideally, without her sensing what was to come).
Here’s the actual recording (i.e., “here’s one I made earlier” on an iphone, from the front porch, 20 feet from the road):
The first challenge was to find a workable volume level. I needed Lyra to register the sound without reacting badly, so that I could begin to change her feeling about the sound (i.e., by feeding her tasty treats and playing tug etc. while the sound occurred). However, if I play the GT sound at a volume (level 3 on my system) too low for me to hear, Lyra reacts — including hiding and food refusal. If I play the volume at level 1 or 2, she doesn’t react, but I have no way of knowing if she hears the sound. If I treat her at level 1 or 2, then, I may be creating a random association rather than pairing the treat with the garbage truck sound (since I can’t know if she actually hears it).
Recently, I was able to say with certainty that she hears the sound at level 1 (inaudible to me) even when the speaker is in another room. However, even at that level she reacts. After only several sound trials (again, with the volume set below my hearing) she began to avoid the rooms of the house where she’d been able to hear the recording. Her life was pretty much limited to the closet in my office, her crate next to our bed at night, and the back yard. On April 9 she accidentally heard the sound, while playing in the yard, through concrete and double-glazed windows. Again, I heard nothing — but she froze, stopped responding to me, and looked terrified until the sound ended (which I knew only in retrospect; at the time, I didn’t understand what was going on.
I began to think — against the grain of reasons to try CC/DS — that the recording was actually making matters worse. I took the problem to the fearful dogs FB group. One of its members, Eileen Anderson, helped me figure this out. Michael had already begun to parse the sounds of the recording, to see if we could work on one sound at a time. Eileen was able to analyze the frequency of the sounds (note plural: garbage trucks make a lot of sounds!). She produced a graph:
The peaks represent the revving engine and the squeal of the brakes — the sounds that we’re hypothesizing cause Lyra the most distress, or at least that make the recording at volume 1 unbearable to her (dogs hear better than we do at the higher frequencies only).
One thing now clear to me is that little research has been done on the use of recordings to help dogs with sound sensitivities and phobias — for all that it seems otherwise. The problem has so many twists and turns; there’s no manual. How can we pair a bus sound with good things, always, when we can’t know if our dog is hearing the sound in between our trials? As Dr. Karen Overall herself said in 2014: “It actually scares me that we think we know more than we do.”