Noise phobia is one of the most common behavioral problems in our pets, especially in dogs. Some troublesome noises include thunder, lightning, driving rain, howling wind, fireworks, cars backfiring and even the hiss cold drink cans or bottles make when they’re opened.
Animals have extremely sharp hearing. They can pretty much hear a pin drop, so any noise which we find loud enough to be annoying or alarming is a deafening clamor to our dogs. It’s no wonder that they react with far more fear than we do and that their anxiety and fear results in cowering and trembling or destructive behavior.
It may be that dogs react more emphatically to thunderstorms and fireworks than other pets like cats, birds or hamsters, but what is undeniable is that if noise phobia is left untreated, it can get much more, with dogs starting to generalise to all noises no matter how small.
What happens inside your dog’s head?
Not much, actually. At this level of fear, your dog’s survival system is activated and all responses are instinctive. Your dog is physically incapable of thought. Think about what happens when a person with an intense fear of spiders sees a hand-sized eight-legged freak on the wall. They usually end up on the opposite side of the room or down the stairs and out the door without a clue how they got there. Your dog has that same flight response.
If flight is not possible – doors are closed or you are physically restraining your dog – there are two other options: find a safe place and hope it ends quickly or lash out.
Lashing out can mean your dog goes into fight mode and will react aggressively towards anything that appears threatening. In this state of high arousal, you can be perceived as threatening and your dog may growl, snarl or snap at you if you try to touch or move her. If you have been restraining your dog, now is the time you’re most likely to be bitten. Your dog will also react aggressively if she feels cornered, so don’t surround her or make her feel like you personally have limited her options.
Lashing out can also mean your dog destroys your home: Rips cushions, chews the couch, chews the door frame, scratches the door, knocks over plants, tips the bin and clears the counter. With forewarning you can make sure that anything breakable is put away safely, that the doors and windows are dog-proofed, the plants are in another room and the counter is clear. Then you can prepare for the storm.
The best thing you can do is provide a safe place, some possible distractions and no-pressure company. Sit in the room with her but don’t try force any interaction. Just be there and let her come to you if and when she’s ready.
Provide a safe place
If you know in advance that scary noises are going to be around – a storm has been forecast or it’s New Year’s Eve – the best thing you can do is prepare a nice safe space beforehand. Most dogs will want to hide under something because it provides the illusion of shelter and safety. You can create a semi-enclosed hidey-hole using blankets and chairs or make her crate extra comfy if she’s crate trained. Crate training is wonderful because crates naturally become a safe place for dogs. In fact, crate training is good for anxious or phobic dogs in general, precisely because they provide safety. Covered crates are extra safe.
Make sure there is water nearby and you can have some food or treats around but bear in mind that when in a state of fear or stress very few animals will eat. Again, it’s something that they are physically incapable of doing. Have her favourite toys out. As the event approaches, put on some pleasant music (classical music is very soothing to dogs’ ears) or watch something distracting on TV. Put on anything that will help drown out or damper the noise without being scary.
If she wants comfort, you can sit with her and stroke her gently. If she wants to be on her own in the crate, she’s free to make the choice.
Important: Don’t go out and leave her on her own because she could go into panic mode and destroy your house in her terror.
Flight at all costs
Some animals are so panicked by loud noise that flight is the only option – even when it’s not. There are stories of dogs with noise phobia leaping through sliding doors and windows, and clawing through doors to get out. After that it’s a simple matter of clearing a 7ft wall and running. It doesn’t matter where they run, so long as they keep doing it.
Dogs that have fled have been found in neighborhoods dozens of miles away from home. Unfortunately, they are also run over by a cars, buses or trucks.
If your dog tends to run at the first hint of danger, you can make your house as escape-proof as possible. For example, you can have security gates in front of doors, so your dog can’t chew or claw the wood. They also can’t jump straight through glass doors because the security gate is in the way. You can put pillows against windows so your dog won’t hurt herself if she leaps at them. Simple plastic tubing can be installed on top of your wall to discourage your dog from leaping over. The tube should be loose so that it can spin and your dog can’t get a grip.
If she still manages to get out, make sure she is wearing her collar and that it has a name tag with her name and your phone number. It’s very important that you microchip your pets so that if the worst does happen, you can be easily traced. The tag should state that she is microchipped so if she’s found they can trace you even if they can’t get reach you by phone. Make sure that your details are up to date with whatever organisation has registered the microchip.
Fear is generalised
Specific noise phobia (thunder or fireworks) can be generalised as your pet associates the noises with other environmental factors. If your pet is afraid of thunder, she may associate preceding storm signs with fear and develop into an intense fear of wind and dark clouds. In severe cases, dogs can become phobic of clouds (even on sunny days). They can also sense the change in barometric pressure before a storm and not want to go outside at all.
Pets who are scared of firecrackers may fear anything that predicts fireworks, like kids, the barbecue and dining outside. They may become reactive around children and hide as soon as you start to set the table.
Working with noise phobia
With a safe place established and everything set for your pet’s comfort, make sure she has a nice day. Take her on her favorite walks, play with her favorite toys and do some fun training or brain work so she is mentally tired.
Consider giving your pet a natural calming agent, such as Rescue Remedy, to take the edge off. You can also use a calming collar with natural pheromones. Collars take a day or two to take effect and last about a month, so they’re good for an event or you can stock up for the worst of your storm season. Note: Chat to your veterinarian before you give your pet any remedy, natural or otherwise.
As the scary event comes closer and you see your pet is becoming anxious you can try to engage her in a distracting activity, such a game of chase or retrieve or practice a dance routine. As the noise levels increase, she’s likely to lose focus and that’s fine. Simply let her go and direct her gently to her safe place.
Not on the day
You might want to work on desensitization and counter-conditioning exercises to help your pet overcome her noise phobia. There are ‘noise’ CDs available that contain sounds that can elicit fear in pets or to which puppies need to be conditioned. Some noises include thunder, roaring trucks and fireworks.
Start playing the sound at a very low volume. Start off at 0 and move up very slowly until you first notice your dog react. Then go back a notch or two. You’ve just found your dog’s threshold level, the level at which she can still function with the noise. You can give her some treats and do some training with the noise at that level. Turn off the sound, give a few more treats and stop the session. Stay at that level for a few sessions. Then turn it up a notch and start again. If you turn it up and your dog shows signs of fear or unease, go back again. Never move forward more than your dog can tolerate. When she is completely comfortable at one level, you can move up to the next.
Gradually, the noise becomes part of the background and is no longer something to be feared. In fact, the sound of thunder (or fireworks) predicts good things, like training and treats.
It can take a long time for your pet to overcome her noise phobia. It all depends very much on your dog and the severity of the fear. Some dogs can overcome noise phobia after a few short sessions while other dogs need months of hard work. The key is to remain patient and work consistently on the problem.
It’s best if you contact a qualified pet behaviorist who can help you determine a behavior modification plan … and help you stick to it.