It is estimated that more than 20% of the UK’s pet dog population suffer from an intense fear of loud noises, this ranges from mild to severe. Noise phobias in dogs are therefore a common problem and are difficult and frustrating to deal with.
Dogs can develop a phobia to any sound. Some common sounds that can cause distress include fireworks, vacuums, sirens, gunshots, and thunderstorms.
Surveys relay that over two thirds of our pets are distressed by the noise of fireworks. With their ever-increasing popularity, and not just for Bonfire night, but for many other celebratory events throughout the year, this can be a real problem and concern for owners and for their pets to deal with.
Noise phobias can develop for several reasons. It could be something as simple as a pet not being exposed to certain sounds during the critical, early socialisation and learning period from 4 to 14 weeks of age. Also, there is a known genetic component. Some dogs, just like people, are naturally timid, and fearful of loud noises.
Dogs can develop noise phobias over time. If left untreated, affected animals often become hyper-sensitive and then generalise their fear towards far lesser sounds. Soon these dogs can become reactive to any abrupt noise, such as a door or window being closed.
A dog’s hearing is much more sensitive than that of a human, and they are also able to hear a wider range of sounds, in both high and low frequency levels. The fear of loud or unexpected noises is triggered by a heightened orienting response, the brain’s mechanism for being aware. When our pet dogs hear certain sounds, the brain instantly processes them to determine whether this sound might signal “danger”.
Noise phobias can manifest themselves in many ways. A mild case may involve panting, tremors, and vocalising: barking and whining. A severe case can involve chewing holes through walls and aggression. Other signs include urinating, defecating, hiding, pacing, digging, escaping, drooling, attention seeking behaviours, and dilated pupils. These behaviours rarely improve unaided and are more likely to get progressively worse.
It is important to remember that these dogs are extremely anxious, and they are not purposely trying to destroy things. For some dogs, noise phobia is so extreme it starts to affect their quality of life, and that of their owners.
Frequent exposure to sounds, particularly from a young age can desensitise the dog to that and similar noises. However, it is not unusual for dogs to develop noise phobias in later life either due to a negative experience, or simply through lack of ongoing exposure.
Dogs are also likely to be tolerant of sounds from a predictable source for example from the TV. They are more accepting to this than to random loud sounds with no predictable source, such as fireworks.
Treatment for Noise Phobia centres around careful desensitization and counterconditioning and this does require patience and understanding. It is also a gradual process and is likely to take some weeks or months.
Firstly, try not to react to the noise yourself, or overly comfort your dog. While an owner’s intentions are to calm and comfort their pet, in fact they are reinforcing their fear.
The use of desensitisation techniques can be extremely effective when dealing with noise phobic pets.
A way of effectively desensitising a dog is to use one of the widely available Noise and Sounds CDs. Start by playing the CD at a very low level whilst your dog is relaxed. If the dog reacts negatively to the CD, stop, and start again at another time at a lower level. Repeat the playing of the CD as frequently as possible. The dog needs to perceive this noise as completely normal and commonplace. Gradually start to increase the volume slowly as the dog’s tolerance improves. If at any time he shows a negative reaction, go back to the previous acceptable level. Play the CD in as many locations as possible. It takes patience and time before the dog is completely tolerant of the CD. Use high value “treats” during the desensitisation period to try to create a positive emotional response to that situation. Also, whilst using the CD, try to time an increase in volume with meal or walk times or the arrival home of a family member. If your dog begins to react, do not react yourself, simply turn the sound off, and restart at the previous volume that he did not react to and begin the desensitisation process again. Do not fuel your dog’s nervous behaviour by overly comforting or reassuring him and take things very gradually and slowly. Play and games can be a great way to create a positive association with unusual sounds. Always give your dog a safe, quiet "Den" place to escape to quietly by himself if he is feels worried. Allow your pet to gain comfort by being around you, but without receiving abundant sympathy.
Dog appeasing Pheromones are readily available in Plug In diffuser, pump spray or even collar form. These may help the dog feel more secure and less anxious during both training and the firework season. Homoeopathic and herbal remedies can be effective in helping to maintain calm. "Thunder shirts" are a type of elasticated jacket that have been specifically designed to apply gentle pressure to key points on the dog’s body helping to calm distressed dogs. T-Touch is a unique form of massage based on circular movements of the fingers and hands all over the body, is often used with fearful and phobic pets.
Soft, soothing relaxing music played over the noise of fireworks can also assist. Classic F.M., partnered with the RSPCA, are repeating their "Pet Classics" programme on Bonfire Night this year, to help anxious pets through this evening of upsetting noise.
A combination of behaviour modification and the use of advised anti-anxiety treatments may be necessary to calm your pet. For extreme cases of noise phobia, prescription medication treatments may also be required. Your vet will carefully consider the level of anxiety and the medical history of the individual patient before prescribing these treatments.
Although noise phobias can be an upsetting and frustrating problem to deal with, some progress can be made. A realistic goal is one of improvement, not of complete resolution. Do contact your vet practice team for good professional advice here.