Noise phobias are the most commonly reported phobias in dogs. Thunderstorms and fireworks are the most common triggers for a fear response but any loud noise can be involved. Individual dogs will express their fear in different ways. Some show a passive or inhibited response that involves whining, trembling, panting, salivating and hiding or seeking company. While others show a reactive response involving running and trying (and sometimes succeeding) to escape. Over time a dog that shows a passive response may progress to show an active response which is potentially dangerous both to the dog and to people and objects (such as windows or screen doors) around them. Animals who are “coping” with their fear may find themselves suddenly in a position where they cannot cope. For example: a dog that, when afraid, hides behind the couch or sits by their owner may find themselves locked outside during a thunderstorm. In this case they may attempt to escape by jumping the fence as they have no access to their coping mechanisms.
If your dog shows signs of fear of loud noises then initially it is most important to help them cope with that fear. This firstly involves making sure they always have access to a suitable hide-out should they want it. If you are with them, remain calm yourself and try to do something fun or just ignore the situation. Dogs do not want an arm around their shoulders, they need to see that no other member of their pack is concerned by the noise. Patting or cuddling the dog can actually encourage the fear behaviour. There are medications that can be used to reduce anxiety during a scary episode such as a storm or fireworks display. Recently, pheromones have also been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety associated with loud noises.
For long-term management, dogs need to be desensitized to noises. This process involves repeated exposure to non-threatening noises while the dog is in a neutral environment and a relaxed state. Gradually increasing the volume of the noises that the dog is being exposed to without evoking a fear response works to desensitize them to noises. There are now CDs available to buy to be used in this desensitizing process. Once the dog is being exposed to loud noises without showing a phobic response, they can be “counter conditioned” which involves learning to associate the loud noise with something pleasurable eg eating or playing. During this desensitizing and counter conditioning process (which can take a very long time) the dogs must always be helped to cope with any unavoidable, sudden, loud noises as described above.
If you feel that your dog may have a noise phobia or would like any further advice, please contact us at the clinic to arrange an appointment with our Veterinary Behaviourist Dr. Sophie Nielsen.