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Canine Behavior/Dog afraid of bird noises


QUESTION: I have a small Schnauzer who is almost 4 years old. He was a shelter dog, and I have had him for eight months. We have an Invisible Fence, and Amos has a big yard to enjoy. He loved being outside, and if it wasn't too cold would even hang out on a bed in the garage. I thought he had settled in well, and knew he had a home here.
We have neighbours that take target practice, or shoot BB's, and the sharp noise alarms him. But now Spring is here, the birds are very noisy, and he seems very afraid of them. I have a terrible time getting him to go outside.
He is not afraid of the birds that he can see that are at the bird feeder, or on the ground, nor the squirrels that come into the yard, but unseen, noisy birds have him quivering in fear. I have never seen a bird attack him, but don't know what happened to him in his first 3 years of life.
What can I do to assure him that he is safe, and can ignore the birds.
Thanks, Helen

ANSWER: First:  do you know the ORDINANCES in your area for shooting a weapon (and that includes a b-b- gun?)  if not, call Town Hall or the local police and ask.  In NY State, one must be at least 500 YARDS from another home (or any structure) in order to shoot a weapon and they must have a berm (construction of rocks and soil) behind their targets.  YOUR NEIGHBOR is most likely in violation of the law.  If so, the police will STOP HIM and will not tell him who reported it.

Second: it is most likely these morons are shooting birds.  It is my educated guess that they are shooting into flocks and the birds are erupting with enormous noise when the shot(s) enter their colony.  Your dog has what appears to be a "generalization" to the sound of gunfire: He has associated the gunfire with the bird sounds and is now afraid of the bird sounds.

The invisible fence is not a confinement I would consider.  Anything can get IN, the dog cannot get OUT; but, if the dog does get OUT, it CANNOT RE-ENTER because it has now been solidly conditioned to the shock.  (And if you don't think the shock collar hurts, put it on your arm and walk over the line).  I suggest you take this dog, on leash, for the next two weeks, IN YOUR CAR and walk him back toward your home, not too close at first, then back to the car and drive him home.  Let's see if we can counter condition him: on leash with you at the other end will give him significant security; starting from a new point of view will change his conditioned response.  AFTER THESE TWO WEEKS, USE THE FOLLOWUP FEATURE to advise me if you see any improvement in his attitude (and remember, this won't happen over night, which is why a minimum of two weeks is required).  I ask many people to followup and at least 50% of them don't which means the dog continues to suffer and I have no way to help the dog.  Think about investing in a small fenced in area around one of your outside doors; you can even build one yourself using metal stakes and solid wire available at any home supply center.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: The Invisible Fence has been a positive for me, and I thought for the dog, giving him a lot of freedom.
I do not think the neighbours are shooting at the birds, but raccoons, and maybe the occasional skunk.
The birds have been very noisy lately, and it has been a "community calling", them calling one another. I don't think Amos is afraid of an individual caw or chirp.
An example of the fear was this morning, first time out for the day. The house was quiet, but as soon as we were outside there was a lot of bird calls, especially from the grackles. Amos turned back, tail between legs, and quivering. I had a hard time keeping him outside to pee. I was hoping that the bird activity was a spring-time thing, nesting season and all, and would ease off as the season progresses. His reaction certainly is new. He has been fearless, and I hate seeing him afraid.

You don't KNOW what your neighbors are shooting at; you don't KNOW if it is even legal for them to be doing so, close to your home; you don't KNOW if the dog has not developed a superstitious behavior toward bird sounds due to an instant association between the shots fired and the reaction of birds.  You aren't out there with him.

I have made a suggestion to you regarding an attempt to counter-condition/desensitize the dog to bird sounds.  As a professional in the field of dog behavior, I have seen the invisible fence cause grave behavioral issues in dogs, so I am inclined to not agree with its use. Further, if these idiots with guns cross your fence line and the birds become alarmed (shots fired WILL cause birds in colonies, or even singly, to take flight in a hurry) you don't KNOW it because you don't see it.

I request that you at least attempt the counter condition by following my suggestion: TAKE THE DOG OUT on leash, take him into the car about three lengths from your driveway, walk slowly back to the house; the moment you see a reaction (observe his body language very, very carefully), stop walking; circle the dog left, then right, until you have his attention.  Ask for sit and heavily reward (but be sure he is not still showing physical signs of fear: raised hackles, ears laid back, tail tucked, cowering, shaking).  If he is still showing these signs, circle him again, do with joy, have a little party while you're circling him; wait for him to relax and ENGAGE with YOU: ask for sit, heavily reward, take him back toward the car.  Reward his elimination, get back in car, go back to the house.  What is a "superstitious" behavior: it is a behavior acquired while the dog is learning something else;  it can occur in two seconds, literally.  If the dog has a fear response to the sound of gun fire (perfectly normal, btw), and birds were in some manner involved (whether or not they were being shot at), he now has a superstitious behavior: the sound of birds, the movement of birds, will cause him fear.  Counter conditioning takes time and patience: that's why I asked you to do this for two weeks and report back concerning any change in behavior (i.e., how close can you get after two weeks to your house without the dog demonstrating fear in body language)?  It's not an easy thing determining treatment from a distance; I am not able to see anything from here.  The treatment I suggest cannot HURT the dog; in fact, it will be a relief for him to be free of the "normal" arrangement and closer to you (on leash).  I ask you: please cooperate with me and at least try what I suggest rather than argue.  Your dog won't get "better" by himself.  I want to help you.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

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Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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