“Willow”, a beautiful silver-grey Whippet, was brought into the surgery as she wasn’t eating. She had been hiding away in the owner’s bedroom all day, afraid to venture outside. Willow was clinically well on her examination; however, she was having a traumatic time due to her very real phobia of thunderstorms and roadworks noise. Lovely Willow needed some help with her anxieties, as she was now quite miserable.
We have had quite a few thunderstorms already this summer, and noisy roadworks seems to be prevalent at every street corner!
More than 20% of the UK’s dog population suffer from a fear of loud noises, ranging from mild to severe. A dog can develop a phobia to any sound including sounds from fireworks, vacuums, sirens, gunshots, traffic noise, roadworks, and thunderstorms. If the phobia is left untreated, affected animals can become hyper-sensitive to any noise and can then generalise their fear towards lesser sounds. Soon these dogs can become reactive to even minor bangs, such as a door being closed.
A dogs hearing is far more sensitive than ours. They can hear a wider range of sounds on both high and low frequency levels. The fear of loud or unexpected noises is triggered by the orienting response, the brain’s mechanism for being aware. The brain processes these sounds to determine whether they may signal some danger. If the dog has experienced these sounds many times before and is able to link them with something that he can recognise as normal, he will usually learn to tolerate them. Random loud sounds from no predictable source are generally the cause of noise phobias.
Frequent exposure to all sounds from a young age, will usually desensitise a young dog to noises. However, it is not unusual for dogs to develop noise phobias in later life, either due to some negative experience, or simply through lack of ongoing exposure, or temperament.
For some dogs, noise phobia is so extreme it starts to affect their quality of life. Noise phobias can manifest in many ways. A mild case may involve panting, trembling, and whining. A severe case can involve chewing holes through walls and aggression. Other signs include hiding, chewing, pacing, digging, drooling, barking, urinating, or defecating. It is important to remember that these dogs are extremely anxious.
Treatment of noise phobic dogs does require some patience and understanding. This is a gradual process and is likely to take some weeks or months.
The advised way of effectively desensitising a dog to noise is to use one of the widely available Noise and Sounds CDs. Start by playing this at a low volume level when your dog is relaxed and playing. If your dog reacts negatively, stop, and try at an even lower volume and for a shorter time on another day. Repeat the sounds playing as frequently as possible, as your dog needs to perceive these noises as completely normal. Gradually start to increase the volume as their tolerance improves. If at any time they show a negative reaction, go back to the previous acceptable level for a few days. Play the CD in as many locations as possible, in different rooms, the car, friend’s houses or even with the use of a portable system on walks. Have patience, it may take several months before the dog is completely tolerant of the noises. Use "high-value" tasty food treats, toys, games and plenty of positive praise and attention to create some positive emotional response during desensitisation.
During training give your dog a “safe” place to escape to if he is feeling worried. A large comfy dog crate is perfect and draping a blanket over the crate may help him to feel more secure. Keep the crate open and do not attempt to force the dog out of his crate, if he chooses to go there leave him alone and start the desensitising training at a lower level again the next day.
Often owners of noise phobic dogs unwittingly fuel and enable their dog’s nervous behaviour by constantly comforting or reassuring them. Dogs are unlikely to understand continuous reassurance and are more likely to perceive this as some approval of their nervous behaviour. Allow your pet to gain comfort by being with you but without receiving constant sympathy. Likewise, subjecting an obviously scared dog to more stimuli is also counter- productive. So, if they do seem anxious, then stop the CD, and try again on at a lower volume another day. It does take some time and patience.
There are other ways that you can assist to help your dog feel more secure and less anxious during the desensitising period: Dog appeasing pheromones are available in diffuser, pump spray or collar form; Homoeopathic and natural herbal anxiolytic oral remedies are another popular and safe aid; Thunder Shirts are a type of elasticated jacket that have been specifically designed to apply pressure to key points on the dog’s body, helping to calm dogs; T-Touch is a form of massage and does have some success with fearful and phobic pets; A combination therapy of behaviour modification and anti-anxiety drugs may be necessary for some extreme cases of noise phobia. Any Prescription only pharmacological therapy will need to be prescribed by your Vet and will be dispensed according to the severity of the problem, the medical history of the patient and on the opinion of the prescribing veterinary surgeon.
Thankfully, lovely Willow settled well over a period of months of desensitisation using a combination of the sounds CD and the use of some natural oral anxiolytic treatments, a Thunder Shirt, and her new comfortable crate - “den”. Willow was now much happier and more confident and relaxed, and she could enjoy being outdoors again!