Dog noise phobias are relatively common and can be a source of great distress for you and your pet. If your dog is very anxious with loud noises, some early intervention can stop the problem getting worse and generalising to other situations.
Dogs who are concerned about loud noises may freeze, hide, blindly try to escape and can often hurt themselves and their environment. On nights with storms or fireworks, the number of stray dogs wildly running around the streets after escaping increases. In some ways a fireworks fear is easier to tackle than a storm phobia as it is more predictable.
Often dogs have both fears, starting out with just a fear of extreme noises then generalising to any sudden noise. And just as noise phobias can often get worse and worse each time, if you implement some measures to help your pet cope, they may in fact improve their tolerance for noise each time. There are a number of steps you can take to help your canine friend cope with the din and we will also suggest some technology for a quicker fix.
WHY ARE THEY WORRIED?
Dogs have very sensitive hearing and can hear much higher frequencies than we can. Who knows how those fireworks really sound to them, they are certainly loud enough to us. Sometimes the problem stems from generalised anxiety, whether that be separation anxiety and being unable to cope alone, or a fear of new situations and lack of confidence. Sometimes the problem stems from poor socialisation and a lack of exposure to new situations and noises before 16 weeks of age.
HOW WE MAKE IT WORSE
Sometimes noise fears will worsen over time. Your dog naturally feels anxious if something scary occurs and physiological changes (such as increased heart rate, dry mouth, noise sensitivity and light sensitivity) can then make him feel physically different. There is a great deal of difference between a natural caution and fear of loud noises and a true irrational phobia.
Dogs are very intuitive creatures, so as much as possible do not give them reason to be more scared. Allow your dog to be with you, but do not add to his worry by excessively comforting him. They can’t tell the difference between your concern for them and being scared yourself. Dogs understand more from our actions than our words, so try to help him relax by playing a game, yawning and make sure your tone of voice and body language is playful. Often dogs feel safer with their family, so avoid putting your dog outside and if at all possible, stay home with your dog or find someone who can.
TECHNOLOGY THAT CAN HELP
- The Adaptil pheromone collar (or diffuser that plugs into a power point) can be used to great effect with anxious dogs. It works by releasing pheromones that remind your dog of the safety of being with his mum.
- Dog Ear muffs will not work to completely block out the sound, but can dull the noise and make it less threatening.
- Thundershirts are like a big warm hug. No one is sure why they work, but certainly some dogs are reassured by this slightly compressive dog coat.
- Through a Dog’s Ear is a series of audio CDs developed by Victoria Stilwell, with calming music and full instructions on how to introduce loud noises gradually.
In some dogs pharmacological intervention is necessary. There is a variation in the sensitivity and efficacy of the medication, so contact your veterinarian well in advance, as you might need to do a few trials to get the dose and medication right for your dog. In dogs that have multiple anxieties, such as separation anxiety it is sometimes useful to put them on longer term medications that can lower their level of arousal.
An anxious dog is not in a state that allows learning to take place. Behavioural modification can be completely ineffective if your dog is consistently anxious, hyperactive, hyper-vigilant and unable to concentrate. Chemical changes in the brain that occur after several weeks of medication, combined with training can really improve the quality of life for an anxious dog and their owner. Not all dogs require life-long medications, many can be gradually tapered off their ‘happy pills’.
Many dogs like to go somewhere dark and cosy when scared. You can assist by providing a sound-proof room or den, set up with a comfy bed, some toys, and preferably some distracting noise such as the radio or TV. This should not be somewhere you banish your dog to, because chances are he will feel safer with the family nearby. You can create a den anywhere you like, but ideally use a relatively sound-proof internal room or an area without a window.
If this is not possible, you can block a small external window in the laundry or bathroom with foam or place several layers of blankets over a kennel or transport crate to increase the noise-muffling effect. Your dog may need to be trained to find this place a safe haven with treats, chews, toys and he should ideally feel safe enough to take naps there. If your dog already has a bolt-hole, such as under the bed, just work on making it even more noise-proof and comfortable. A noisy bathroom fan can provide great white noise to mask fireworks. Some dogs find any noise overstimulating, so experiment with what works for your dog. If you choose to try distracting noises, try single instrument non-stimulating classical music, rather than heavy rock.
CHEWING AND TOYS
Chewing for dogs is a great stress-reliever. Give your dog a big meaty bone, Kong, Greenie or pigs ear. You are not rewarding him for fear, just helping him cope. Use something very big and tasty and that will ideally last for a while. You can also use puzzle toys or a Buster Cube to keep your dog occupied with games and treats.
TRAINING AND MASSAGE
- Training your dog to settle on command can take a little time, but is certainly a useful skill to develop. It is a way to reliably get your dog to stay on his bed or in his den and teaches him how to relax on cue.
- Try a relaxing massage.
- Desensitisation involves using pre-recorded loud noises played at progressively higher volumes over a few weeks while your dog is relaxed or eating. The Frightful Noises CD by Dr. Cam Day has been developed for this purpose. If your dog reacts, you need to take it back a step to a much lower volume and increase more gradually.
If your dog is anxious, destructive or in danger of harm during storms or fireworks, please seek advice from a Veterinary Behaviourist who can help you with medications and some training. Often the fear worsens over time, so it is certainly important to implement some strategies early on to avoid the fear turning into a full-blown phobia.
Dogs also have a tendency to generalise their fear to any loud noise, so what starts out as a moderate fear of one stimulus can become a paralysing fear of many situations.