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Why Do Certain Sounds Scare Dogs?

Helping Your Dog Overcome Noise Phobia: Insights from K9reproduction

Does your dog jump at the sound of thunder, start shaking every time you turn the vacuum on, or hide during fireworks? He might be suffering from noise phobia.

A poorly understood condition, noise phobia can develop in dogs of all ages, although dogs over a year of age are more likely to suffer from it, according to Kristen Collins, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) and the director of a rehabilitation center specializing in treating fearful and under-socialized dogs.

“Some dogs simply seem more sensitive and susceptible to developing a fear of noises, and this susceptibility may indicate a genetic predisposition toward the problem,” Collins explains.

Other dogs learn to fear certain sounds. “A dog who isn't initially afraid of a sound can become fearful when an unpleasant event is linked with that noise,” Collins adds.

What Dog Noise Phobia Really Is (and Isn't)

Although they might all sound the same, fear, anxiety, and phobia are quite different.

Fear in Dogs

“Fear is a physiologic, emotional, and behavioral response to animate or inanimate things that pose a threat of harm,” explains Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, DACVB, and clinical instructor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. Fear is a normal reaction because it enables animals to respond to situations that could be potentially dangerous.

Anxiety in Dogs

Anxiety is a persistent fear or apprehension of something that is not present or imminent. Essentially, anxiety is a fear of what might happen in the future.

Phobias in Dogs

Phobias are extreme, persistent fears of a stimulus, such as a thunderstorm, that are entirely out of proportion to the level of threat it poses. “Noise phobia is an extreme, persistent fear of auditory stimuli that is out of proportion to the real danger, if any, associated with the noise,” says Dr. Borns-Weil.

Noise Phobia vs. Thunderstorm Phobia

Thunderstorms are a common type of canine phobia, but it’s important to understand the difference between noise phobia and thunderstorm phobia.

“Storm phobia is multisensory,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “While it certainly includes very loud noise produced by thunder, other aspects of the storm (flashes of lightning, heavy wind, rain battering the roof, changes in air pressure, etc.) may be either independent fear triggers or become anxiety-inducing predictors of impending thunder.”

Thunderstorm phobia and other noise phobias may co-occur, but they also occur separately.

Sounds That Trigger Noise Phobia in Dogs

Fireworks, gunshots, and vacuum cleaners are common causes of noise phobia. Dogs may also become phobic of fire alarms, cooking (if it sets off the smoke alarm), crying babies, people sneezing and/or coughing, snow sliding off the roof, and even the clicking of the furnace when it turns on.

“I also meet dogs that are fearful of electronic tones,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “Dogs that have been trained using electronic collars that give a beep before emitting a painful electric shock may become generally fearful of electronic tones, including message alerts on cell phones.”

What Causes Dogs to Develop Phobias of Certain Sounds?

Understanding the cause of a phobia can be tricky. Lack of socialization is often behind the issue. “Puppies that have insufficient exposure to a variety of normal stimuli during their first four months of life are at higher risk of being overly fearful as adults,” says Dr. Borns-Weil.

Older dogs can develop phobias following an exposure to an extremely frightening situation. For example, a dog that was in a home hit by a tornado may become extremely frightened of the sound of wind.

Health issues can also lower a dog’s threshold for anxiety and fearfulness. “Any illness, pain, or itching may lower a dog’s threshold for anxiety and fearfulness,” says Dr. Borns-Weil.

Symptoms and Behaviors Associated With Noise Phobias

The symptoms of noise phobia are usually extreme. A dog experiencing a phobia episode is panicking, so he may pace, pant, tremble, and hypersalivate.

“Frightened dogs may cower, ears flat against their skulls, eyes wide, muscles tensed, and tails tucked,” explains Collins. “Some dogs become restless and move around anxiously with no apparent purpose, while others become immobile, shutting down and unable to move.”

Some fearful dogs cling to their owners, seeking comfort, while others prefer to hunker down on their own, away from people and preferably somewhere dark and quiet.

It's also not uncommon for dogs with noise phobia to engage in destructive behavior like chewing, digging, scratching, and tearing up objects in the home.

“At worst, noise phobias can trigger frantic attempts to escape,” says Collins. “Panicked dogs may scratch and dig frantically at doors or even jump out of windows.”

How to Help a Dog With Noise Phobia

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

For discrete sounds such as the vacuum cleaner, systematic desensitization and counterconditioning can be very effective treatments. This involves presenting the frightening sound at a gradually increasing intensity, always staying below the threshold that would cause a fear response. The sound is paired with a high-value reward such as food, play, or petting.

Play the recording of the sound at a low volume and give your dog treats. Increase the volume over several training sessions, always keeping an eye on your dog’s body language to make sure he’s not upset by the noise.

However, desensitization and counterconditioning don't work well for certain noise phobias, such as thunderstorm phobia, since storms are multisensory. A dog may be desensitized to the sound of thunder with the help of a recording but still be nervous about the sound of wind, lightning flashes, rain, pressure changes, and static electricity in the air.

Creating a Sense of Safety

For thunderstorm phobia, a dog can be taught to go to a “safe place” in the home. Using sights and sounds—white noise, relaxing music, light-blocking shades—to shut out the storm as much as possible can also help. Dog anxiety vests can be beneficial.

Medications and Supplements

Natural calming agents such as VetriScience Composure dog chews, Rescue Remedy, and Adaptil collars can help some pets. If all else fails, medications such as sedatives can be helpful in severely affected pets. For example, Sileo, a medication absorbed through the gums, has been approved for use in dogs who are fearful of loud noises.

What Not to Do When Your Dog Is Scared

Don’t Ignore Your Dog

If you have a dog who approaches you for company and comfort when scared, don't ignore him, and never punish him. Ignoring and avoiding him may make him feel confused and more fearful. Let your dog sit on your lap if that makes him feel better, but keep in mind that providing comfort will not address the underlying problem. You'll still have to work on helping your dog overcome his fear.

Never Punish a Scared Dog

Punishing a dog for destructiveness, barking, or soiling that is done out of panic will only increase anxiety and make the problem worse.

There are many other options if desensitization and counterconditioning are not helping. Using cotton balls or rolled gauze sponges to place in the ear canals can lessen the noise during storms and fireworks displays. Just make sure to remove them after the inciting event.

By understanding the causes and symptoms of noise phobia and using effective treatments, you can help your dog overcome his fears and improve his quality of life.


Dog scared of loud noises
Dog scared of loud noises

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