Noise phobias

If your dog is afraid of sudden noises then life can be miserable for both of you. Summer thunderstorms can become a major trauma and unless you live in a remote part of the country there is almost no way of avoiding fireworks. There are some simple tips that can help to make the whole experience more bearable for both of you, but to find a solution to the problem you will need to seek some expert help.

Noise sensitivity is the exaggerated reaction to noises, generally loud and sudden noises such as thunder, fireworks, gunshots, etc. Sensitivity can be shown in the form of anxiety, fear or a phobic response.

Fear can be difficult to gauge in animals and is based on observation of body postures and behavioural persistence. A fearful dog will show an increased heart rate, often pant, and possibly urinate and defaecate inappropriately.

Fleeing or hiding are instinctive responses, and a fearful dog will try to make himself as small as possible, cringing close to the ground with the ears flat against the head and tail tucked under the body. Defensive aggressive behaviour may also be exhibited, but whether an animal fights or flees depends on its genetic make up and also the perceived threat as well as the options available from the environment.

Noise phobia means that the fear has become so extreme that the response is the same everytime there is even the slightest hint of a problem, as in a panic attack, and may even occur in absence of the feared sound.

Anxiety is the manifestation of fear signs in anticipation of the noise. Your dog may have learnt the events that predict the presence of the noise and react to these (e.g. changes in the barometric pressure in the case of an approaching thunderstorm). On the other hand, your dog may feel constantly anxious when there is not way to predict the feared sound (e.g. gunshots).

Fear is a normal reaction in many situations. Frightened dogs may become aggressive (fight reaction), run away (flight), stay still (freeze), or display appeasement behaviours (attempts to calm down the threatening individual). Although a startle reaction to sudden loud noises is normal, a simple unease around loud noises can develop into a phobia because of personal experiences.

Sometimes fear results from a traumatic experience related to noise. Some noises, such as fireworks, are very loud and can be painful to the ear. It is therefore not surprising that they may naturally evoke a fear response in dogs.

In other cases it is the continuous, unpredictable repetition of sudden loud noises that favors the development of sensitivity. This is more common with thunderstorms than with other sounds: dogs do not have the time to get used to the sound and the response gets more and more intense with each crash in the storm.

Fearful responses can also result from any significant sound that the pet has not encountered during the sensitive period of development (approximately up to 12 to 14 weeks). This is one reason where it is good practice to expose the puppy to as many novel experiences as possible during the first 3-4 months of life. However, even dogs exposed to a wide variety of noises may become fearful later in life, particularly in the case of other concomitant behaviour problems or physical disease which may decrease their tolerance to any unpleasant event.

Some breeds of dogs are more ‘highly strung’ than others and these may become nervous more easily. There is also a family influence with some puppies learning fearful behaviour from their mother.

Unfortunately noise sensitivity can be a tricky problem to sort out and prevention definitely is the best option. Exposure to as many new and novel situations as possible during your pet’s early development is essential to reduce the risk of sensitivity developing. It is critical that these early experiences are positive so expose your dog to mild volumes of different sounds the first time and reward relaxed behaviour. In the case of road traffic noises you should let your dog see the traffic, in order to habituate the pet to all components of this element. Remember to keep the initial stimulation mild – possibly from a distance – and positive.

If however the problem is already established, it is possible to teach your dog not to be afraid. This may take a few months, but with your help most dogs can make a big improvement; therefore if your dog has a noise sensitivity, you should do something about it.

For the immediate period around likely exposure to fireworks, thunder or other scary noises, try to keep your dog in the house. Many dogs will try to escape from the noise by running away and the last thing you want is a panic-stricken dog out on the streets. Keep your dog in a room with the curtains and blinds shut or choose a windowless room.

You will need to prepare in advance for your dog to stay comfortably in this area. Particularly, this new area will need a “safe haven” for your dog. The safe haven is simply an area or a dog bed where your pet can feel safe and secure. You should appreciate that it is not a bolt hole where your pet hides until the fearful event is passed. It is rather a place where your dog spontaneously decides to go because it feels good, and so is something that positively helps your pet to successfully cope with his fears. For this reason, the safe haven should be a confined area, with on previous negative experiences (e.g. if your dog tends to hide in one corner of the room, you can choose the same room but set the safe haven in a different corner).

You will need to build up several positive experiences associated with the safe haven in advance of any risk period. You can choose a new bed and put it in a crate (but only if you are sure that your dog likes to rest in crates). You may want to cover the crate with a blanket or place it under a table (this depends on your dog’s preferences for small confined places). It is also useful to plug in an Adaptil™ diffuser in proximity of the safe haven or to spray a blanket with an Adaptil™ spray and put it on the bed; this will help your pet to feel safe and calm.

Once you have the safe haven set up, you can teach your dog to use it. Initially you may encourage your dog to go into the safe haven luring him with toys or some food treats. Your dog’s meals can also be given here. You can also hide toys and treats in the safe haven for your pet to find there (this will encourage the dog to visit the place when you are not around). You can also give chews or food toys, like a Kong©, for your dog to work on when it is there. Every time you see your pet in the safe haven he should be allowed to relax there with treats tossed over to him, but no direct contact. With time you may make these additional rewards less frequent, since the place itself has become an area for relaxation.

It is important that potentially unpleasant events are never associated with the safe haven; therefore, should you need, for example, to give medication it is important that you do it elsewhere. In the same way, if children or other animals bother your pet, you will need to teach them to respect this area or keep them at a distance using baby gates or door flaps. The idea is that this is a place where your dog can be in control. Placing the safe haven in the room least exposed to the sounds, will also help your pet.

You can provide plenty of background noise to try and mask the external sounds. Noisy music or the television usually provides relatively good cover, if your pet will tolerate it. Music with slow tempos and less complex arangements (such as instrumental solos) often have a calming effect on animals. A music CD specifically designed for calming purposes is also available (“Music to Calm your Canine Companion”, Through a Dog’s Ear).

For some dogs with a severe phobia the only solution in the short term is a short course of calming medication from your vet. These drugs should be given before your dog becomes upset for maximum efficacy, therefore you must give them before the feared event starts.

Give the medication even if you are not sure whether the noise will occur or not, as it is better for your pet to have taken the medication on a false alarm than for him to experience another traumatic event without medication. Always discuss medication issues with your vet and only use treatment under their guidance.

Never punish your pet for their behaviour when they are afraid. They will only learn to associate the punishment with the noise and become even more disturbed. Try not to make a big fuss of your pet when they appear nervous. Act normally and praise them if they do the same, or try to be jolly and playful and reward your dog once he joins you.

Try to ignore the noises outside. Do not soothe or comfort your dog when it shows fear as this may encourage the behaviour. Act as you would do normally. If it not possible for you to ignore your dog, you may try to distract your pet by playing a game. You should not call your pet or directly encourage any interaction, but rather play on your own or with a familiar friend and see if your dog wants to join in. If your pet has a friend who is not scared of noise, invite that dog over for the evening and play boisterous games with him. Use a jolly voice and get busy with any activity that is very likely to get your dog engaged, such as moving and manipulating dog food and treat containers, etc.

If you are intending to use earplugs in your dog be very careful. It is quite easy to damage your dog’s ear by pushing something into it. A rolled up piece of cotton wool can be fitted into the ear but always make sure that you remove it as soon as the noise has stopped. Anything left in the ear can set up a nasty infection.In order to avoid further stress for your pet, it is advisable that you teach your dog to gradually tolerate the earplug. “Mutt-muffs” are available from the internet.

Once the immediate problem is over, think about getting some professional help for your pet. Your vet will be able to refer you to a specialist in animal behaviour who can help you with desensitisation therapy to re-train your dog not to be afraid. Although this can be a long process if you start soon you should have your dog fit to face the music by next year.

Desensitisation is the process of teaching your pet to be less sensitive to sudden loud noises. Counter-conditioning means swapping the fear response with a more positive feeling (e.g. associated with play or eating).

The basic principle of desensitisation is to let your dog experience quiet noises in a situation where he does not feel afraid. Your dog is then rewarded for being relaxed and once they are used to this process the level of noise is gradually increased, but only to a level where they always feel confident. If your dog is ever afraid of the noise then the level should be reduced until they feel safe again.

Having a sound sensitivity is no fun for your dog and can be very distressing for you. Many noise sensitivities get worse with time and they will not go away unless you do something about it. Feeling fearful can also put your pet at risk of developing other behaviour problems. Seek some help while it is fresh in your mind. In the first instance consult your veterinary surgeon who may refer you to an animal behaviourist for further advice.