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When I sneeze, my young Cocker Spaniel jumps up on me and stares right into my face. Is this his way of saying “Gesundheit”? Or is he simply scared? As we move into allergy season, this may be a problem for some dogs and owners.
When we sneeze, we have a forced expulsion of air through our mouths and noses. Some people sneeze very quietly, and others sneeze very loudly. If caught unaware by another person’s sneeze, a dog may be startled. Some dogs may jump up or jump on the owner and bark in alarm. When your dog jumps on you after you have sneezed, he may also be looking you over to make sure you are OK. From his perspective, it might be a cry of pain or for help. On the other hand, sometimes any loud noises made by the owner may seem exciting to a particular dog. He may view the noise as an invitation to play or to join in the noise-making party.
If your dog becomes overly excited or scared when you sneeze, you can try counter-conditioning him to the noise. How do you do this? Every time you sneeze, drop a treat as you reach for a tissue. Pretty soon, he will learn that sneezes mean treats are headed his way! An alternative method is tossing his ball or a toy farther away from you, so the sneeze does not upset him. Some owners might find it difficult to coordinate tossing treats or toys when they are about to sneeze. In this case, you can try muffling your sneezes by sneezing into your hands or elbows. If you can, set aside time to work on increasing your dog’s tolerance to your sneezes, even if they are “fake.” Then, you can work on gradually exposing your dog to more sneezes. With desensitization exercises, you can also record your sneezes and play them back at a low volume. While playing them back, do your best to keep your dog calm and focused on you. Using tricks and treats, your dog can gradually learn that every time he hears a sneeze, he can look to you to perform an engaging cued behavior, such as sit, touch or look, and receive a tasty treat for not getting excited. While your dog is focused on earning his goodies, gradually raise the volume of the recording. All behavior modification exercises should be short, lasting one to two minutes per session or up to 15 minutes at the most. With this technique, you can slowly increase your dog’s tolerance of your scary sneezes. The goal is to gradually raise the volume over multiple sessions to a volume equivalent to a “live” sneeze that no longer triggers a jumping or barking fest!
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