Noise phobia in dogs

By Asa Gislason

What is noise phobia and what can you do about it?

Dogs have very acute hearing. Their hearing range is around 67 – 45,000 Hz, compared to 64 – 23,000 Hz for humans. This means dogs can hear higher pitched sound than we humans can. They can also hear about 4 times the distance. It is therefore not that strange that most dogs do not like loud noises, e.g. from fireworks, thunderstorms, or shooting.

Thunderstorm over city

Your dog is likely to experience some loud noises during his lifetime, so it is important to help him to get used them. The sooner you start the better, as the problem is likely to escalate over time if not dealt with early on. Fear of loud noises can develop into noise phobia, which can be very difficult to deal with.

What is noise phobia in dogs?

The definition of noise phobia is persistent, excessive, and irrational fear response to a sound, or escape from the sound.

The signs of noise phobia in dogs

It is usually easy to recognize when our dogs are afraid of something. Dogs suffering from noise phobia tend to show more signs of fear and their responses tend to be more intense. Not all dogs show the same signs of noise phobia but common signs include:

- Shaking or trembling

- Pacing or restlessness

- Heavy panting

- Excessive salivation

- Dilated pupils

- Hiding

- Seeking the owner

- Fear position (tail tucked, ears back)

- Stress related vocalizations (barking, whining, howling)

- Trying to escape (running blindly, digging)

- Destructive behaviour (chewing or scratching)

- Self-mutilation (nervous chewing or licking)

- Urinating

- Defecating

- Anal gland discharge

- Excessive yawning

- Not eating

- Not listening to commands

What triggers noise phobia in dogs?

Dog fear of noise may be triggered by bad experience of certain noise but usually there is no recognizable trigger. Certain breeds seem to be more at risk of developing noise phobias, e.g. Collies, German Shepherds, and Beagles. Dogs with other fearful behaviour, like separation anxiety, are also more likely to develop noise phobia.

The owner can play part in the intensity of the fear. For example, if the owner is afraid in thunderstorm, then it can intensify his dogs fear. And if the owner tries to comfort the dog, he may accidentally be reinforcing the fear. As the dog may interpret it as confirmation that there is something to be afraid of.

Dogs do not "get over it" with time and enough exposure. Actually, noise phobia in dogs usually gets worse with time if left untreated. The dog may become fearful of things he associates with the noise. For example, if he is afraid of thunderstorms, he may also become afraid of rain. Or if he is afraid of gunshots, he may become afraid of the sight of a gun.

Noise phobia in dogs needs to be treated. It may never be fully resolved (cured) but it many cases the fear of noise can be managed effectively.

What can you do about your dog fear of noise?

There are three main types of treatments for noise phobia in dogs, i.e. changes in the dog's environment, behaviour therapy and medication. Often more than one, or all treatments, are carried out together.

Dog afraid of noise with headphone

Changes in the dog's environment

This is about making changes in the environment that can help the dog to cope better with his fear. This includes creating a safe enclosed area for your dog, e.g. crate covered with a blanket for added feeling of security. It is also good to damper the noise level anyway you can, e.g. with heavy curtains. Sound, e.g. from TV or radio, can also help to reduce the external noise.

Extra exercise and feeding the dog before the storm / firework display starts is also recommended. Distracting the dog with new toy or favorite treat can help too. Furthermore, it is important to keep the atmosphere calm and not over comfort your dog, as this can make the situation worse on the long run (reinforce the dogs fear).

Doing small changes like this can work well for many dogs, especially if used in collaboration with good quality calming aid for dogs.

Dog behaviour modification techniques

There are special techniques that can change the dog's response to the noise. Behaviour therapy requires commitment from the dog owner, but it can really work wonders for many dogs. Systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning are the most common treatments for canine anxiety, phobias, fear, and aggression, or any behavioural problem that involves arousal or emotional reaction.

Counter-conditioning involves teaching the dog to feel and react pleasantly to something he once feared or disliked. This is done by associating the feared thing with something pleasurable for the dog. For example, by giving the dog his favourite treat or toy as soon as he hears the first firework go off.

While desensitization involves a gradual process of exposing the dog to a less intense version of the noise he fears, in such a way that his fear isn’t triggered. Basically, the dog is taught to be calm when the noise level is low and then the noise level is gradually increased until the dog doesn't show any fear of the noise.

Anxiety medication for dog

In the most severe cases, dog anxiety medication may be prescribed. Drugs can be given for special events, like Fourth of July fireworks, or when big storm has been forecasted. In other cases medication may be required for a time period, e.g. during the thunderstorm season.

Prescribed drugs for dogs include Alprazolam, Amitriptyline, Buspirone, Diazepam (Valium) and Fluoxetine (Prozac), i.e. drugs to treat depression, anxiety, and panic disorders. Medication for dogs does include some side effects, sometimes quite severe. Many dog owners therefore see dog anxiety medication as the last resort.

Natural calming aid supplements, like maxxicalm, and pheromone diffusers have no side effects and may benefit dogs with mild or moderate noise phobia, and even those with severe phobia if used in connection with other treatment options.

How effective noise phobia therapy for dogs is depends on various factors. Firstly, how severe the phobia is and for how long it has it been going on. Then it can matter if the phobia is ongoing, seasonal, or unpredictable. Last but not least, the amount of time the owner is willing to commit to the treatment does affect if and how effective dog behaviour modification techniques work.

The most common noise phobias in dogs

The most common noise phobias in dogs are fear of thunderstorms or fireworks. Fear of gunshots is also quite common in certain areas. Less common phobias include the sound of certain birds and other loud noises.

You can find practical tips for helping your dog deal with his fear of fireworks and thunderstorms. However, if your dog suffers from severe case of noise phobia, then you should seek professional advice. 

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As dog owners, we know which situations upset our dogs. For some it’s being left alone, for others it’s trips to the vet, thunderstorms, or unexpected visitors.

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