Graig and Ashley, an Army Corp engineer and a special education teacher, are in their mid-30s with two young sons, ages five and two. They live on a 27-acre lot in rural western New York. In February of 2009 Graig rescued two Malinois / Husky puppies living in a cardboard box, naming them Ava and Luna. Both Ava and Luna are now eleven years old, and spayed.
When Graig first got the dogs, he was single and had the time needed for them. This continued when he met Ashley and they were first married. Now, both have full-time jobs, children, and in addition, Graig has rental properties and a contracting business.
From the time she was puppy, Ava showed severe sound sensitivity. Specifically, she is afraid of thunder and gunshots, which cause pacing, panting, salivating, cowering, whining and, if she is alone or with Luna, destruction of walls to try get into the house. Ava now also demonstrates the above behaviors even when there is a change in air pressure prior to a storm arriving or if one is in the vicinity.
Although Graig and Ashley had tried a Thundercoat and Benadryl (as prescribed by their veterinarian), neither had helped Ava’s distress and they felt there was nothing else to be done.
Left unresolved, Ava’s condition grew worse.
If someone was not home to let her in, she would chew through the garage wall, destroying it and injuring herself trying to get into the house. As Graig’s home was being torn apart and Ava’s quality of life continued to deteriorate, he called his mom, recent Academy graduate Kathryn Boccia, for help. Graig is a three-time Iraqi combat veteran and so, Kathryn normalized Ava’s fear of thunder and gunshots to the fear he may have felt during mortar attacks. She recommended training and a new veterinarian consultation to help Ava. She also advised Graig that sound sensitivities can be a particularly difficult fear to modify.
Kathryn chose desensitization and classical counterconditioning (DS/CC) to reduce Ava’s fearfulness.
In addition to training, knowing that DS/CC would be nearly impossible if Ava could not lower her fear threshold, Ava was taken to a new veterinarian which resulted in her receiving clomipramine and Xanax to reduce her anxiety. After about four weeks on medication, Kathryn and Graig began the DS/CC program. Kathryn worked with a standard DS/CC plan using a recording of a thunderstorm, with the volume of the recording being the only parameter.
Bumps in the Road
A few sessions in Kathryn noticed Ava was attending to the speaker by looking at it, especially during early repetitions at any step in the plan. After enough repetitions at the current volume, and as Ava gained a positive conditioned emotional response, she paid less and then no attention to the speaker.
Kathryn re-wrote the training plan to include a visual parameter: for Ava, having the speaker in sight was easier (less fear-evoking) than having the speaker out of sight.
For this reason, the new DS/CC plan included the location of the speaker as a parameter and Kathryn manipulated it separately from volume. She added in a “warm up” parameter as well: in early steps, she had the speaker hidden and at a high volume only after some warm-up repetitions were completed. As the plan progressed, and Ava’s CER to the thunder became stronger, the first trial of the day was with a hidden speaker at a high volume. Kathryn and Graig also hid the speaker in different places in the home and garage. To Kathryn’s surprise and delight, this added parameter was clearly meaningful to Ava, and having the speaker hidden, loud, and “cold” (first trial) seemed to prepare her for the real event.
Due to the medication and the behavior modification completed to date, Ava is much less agitated during gun shots than she was in the past. Though still anxious, her threshold is higher, and she now displays no destructive behavior. At the time of writing hunting season is over, but storm season is just beginning. As the first storm began, Graig and Ashley let Ava into the house. It had been some time since she had done any training sessions, but she showed no more anxiety than a bit of panting and pacing and then, went to her place in the living room and laid down. Considering her age and the greatly reduced fear and anxiety, Graig is happy with this status and will continue to manage via medication and continued real-life counterconditioning.
This was a remarkable success story with a very tricky case type.
Kathryn Boccia is in the greater Canisteo, New York area and can be found on Facebook at Dogs Don’t Know Sit, LLC.