Canine Behavior/dog afraid of flying insects
My chihuahua is absoloutely terrified of small flying insects, to my knowledge he has never been stung, but he just shakes uncontrollably and licks his legs if he sees one. he will snap at a fly trying to catch it but it is the tiny midgie type insects that really freak him out. He is worse if he sees one inside the house. Hope you can help as I am at a loss what to do to calm him down and as we are coming in to our summer here in Australia there are numerous flying insects around.
Thank you for your time
Thank you for your question. I can't help but giggle a little because my older dog (35-lb Chow mix) is absolutely terrified of the buzz of flying insects - flies and bees/wasps.
Now, in my case, I am the reason my dog is fearful. He had no problem with them until a wasp got in my house one day several years ago. I rather freaked out because I'm very afraid of the flying/stinging insects. I moved rather frantically and a fly swatter was used and it took several minutes to get the thing out of the house (or dead - I don't recall the outcome). In the process, my sensitive boy made the association that my fear and frantic behavior was directly related to that buzzing sound. And now, even though flies are only annoying and not scary to me, they are scary to him. If he hears one, he will get up and leave the room, hiding in the bathroom or going outside where they bother him less.
It's not typically a big deal in our area and so I've not really gone out of my way to address it. But, here's what to do if it's a big problem in your area.
First, get a recording of the buzzing sound - there's probably an app for your smart phone. Or you can surely find video on line that has good sound and then record that. Or you may even be able to just go "bzzzzz...." and make the sound yourself. Actually, get half a dozen recordings so that you have several variations to rotate through.
Start with the volume super soft. Have it buzz for just half a second and then promptly give your pup a bite of his very favorite dog-safe human food. In my house, that's cheese or hotdog. These should be teeny bites as you have a very small dog. And be sure to adjust his regular meal ration down so that we don't over feed him. Other food options include chicken, pork (not bacon - too fatty), lamb, beef, heck, even french fries. Anything your boy LOVES.
The volume needs to be soft enough and/or far enough away from him that while he hears it, he's not triggered to panic. Just enough of the noise that it catches his attention, but he can still think straight. Then, the protocol is:
Bzzz - treat
Bzzz - treat
Bzzz - treat.
The order of presentation is crucial. You must present the buzz BEFORE the arrival of the treat. And it must be within 1-2 seconds of the buzz that the treat is presented. What we are doing is creating a new association for your dog. Instead of Buzzz = Threat, we are now teaching him that Buzzz = Favorite Food. We are teaching him that the buzz reliably predicts
the arrival of something he loves.
You can do this with a super favorite toy as well, though for most dogs, food is far more powerful and faster to make the new association.
Once he's clearly comfortable and happily anticipating the arrival of food when the volume/distance is low, then you'll increase the volume and/or decrease the distance of the noise and continue on.
NOTE: EITHER INCREASE THE VOLUME OR DECREASE THE DISTANCE. DON'T DO BOTH AT THE SAME TIME. IF YOU INCREASE THE VOLUME, STAY AT THE SAME DISTANCE TO THE SOURCE. IF YOU DECREASE THE DISTANCE TO THE SOURCE OF THE NOISE, THEN KEEP THE VOLUME THE SAME OR YOU MAY EVEN HAVE TO LOWER THE VOLUME A BIT TO KEEP YOUR BOY BELOW HIS PANIC THRESHOLD.
Be patient with your pup and work at his pace. Continue at a given volume/distance to source of sound until he is clearly comfortable and happily anticipating the noise because it predicts the arrival of his very favorite treat.
Continue to build the volume and decrease the distance in turns until the noise can be right next to him and at a much louder volume than he would experience in nature. You may even practice moving the noise making unit (e.g. your smart phone) so that the noise is moving past him like it would if it were a real fly - the noise approaches and then moves past and away.
If he is comfortable with the noise being very close and much louder than the real thing, then you should see a clear improvement in his reaction to the real thing.
Also, as part of this, make sure that you have stashes of tasty treats conveniently located throughout the house/yard so that no matter where you are, if a real fly happens past, you can immediately toss him a tidbit so that he learns that even when it's random and real, it still means the same thing.
After a while, you'll see that he's no longer showing fear of the insects, but is comfortable with them and may even seek them out in order to get a treat. At that point, you no longer need to provide a treat every single time he hears an insect go by, but rather randomly toss him a treat when one flies by - perhaps every 6th or 10th time. Sometimes you might do it on two consecutive fly-bys from a real insect, then maybe not for 15 or 20 times. Of course, if an insect is just hounding him and repeatedly buzzing past, you may need to help him feel secure and give him several treats during that one episode until you can get the insect out of the house or killed.
How long will this take? It depends on your dog, his level of fear and how long he's been fearful. It also depends on how often you're able to practice with him and how well you're prepared for the unexpected real encounters. The more fearful and the longer he's been fearful, the longer it will take - you're dealing with a phobia and it takes as long as it takes for him to feel better.
The more well prepared you are for the real thing, and the more you're able to practice with him in a controlled setting (volume and distance to source of sound), the faster you'll make progress. There may be some set-backs, especially if you were not prepared for a real event, or if he was home alone and bothered by a fly. But with patience and practice, you should see clear improvement.
Formal behavior modification sessions should be short and random. For example, you might do a single play of the recording in the morning - pair it with the arrival of a treat just after the sound is played, and then wait a couple hours, then do 3 or 5 plays of the recording - each followed immediately by a treat. Then, a few hours later, do another 1 or 2 plays of the recording and so on. Controlled practices using the recording of the sound should happen in every room of the house as well as both the front and back yard, as well as while out on walks or in other public locations. The idea is to help him generalize that no matter where he is, no matter what time of day it is (morning, afternoon, evening or dark outside), no matter what he's doing, the sound of the buzz reliably predicts the arrival of his favorite treat (or one of several favorites). Don't use his kibble for this training; we must use special treats that he gets at no other time than when he hears the buzz of a flying insect.
Regarding the snapping at insects as they fly past - that's a pretty normal canine behavior. So long as it's not leading him to panic, I wouldn't worry about that aspect of this issue. And as he gets more comfortable with the sound of these little pests, the more relaxed he's likely to be overall.
Further reading you may find useful:
Dr. Patricia McConnell's book, The Cautious Canine - How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears
is a great book. I believe she uses a single example (dog afraid of hose water) throughout for the purpose of walking the reader through the process, but the process she's going through is essentially the same no matter the thing the dog finds scary. It's the same process I've described - Counter Conditioning - but in more detail than I can provide in this forum.
Good luck. Please let me know how it goes. I'd love to hear if you see improvement, and I'd be happy to help tweak the protocol if necessary.
Los Angeles Behaviorist
(formerly Good Dog! Dog Training)