Living with a dog who is noise phobic is hard, on the dog and on the people. It’s difficult to watch a dog trembling, hiding, refusing to eat high value food, trying to escape or refusing to go outside. Sometimes sound phobias happen at predictable times we can mostly plan for, like fireworks for New Year’s Eve or Independence Day. But often noise phobias are to sounds we can’t always control or predict like thunderstorms, cars backfiring, gunshots, urban noises, children crying or beeping sounds like a smoke detector or the USPS’ mail scanner.
So how do we help them? First, especially if the noise sensitivity is recent, that definitely requires a vet check. We know there is a connection between pain and noise sensitivities. Any sudden behavior change always requires a vet check, as I’ve said before. But in this recent study from Dr. Daniel Mills, they were able to show avoidance in places where the dog previously had a bad experience with a noise. I’ve had numerous clients refusing to go outside when it started to get dark because darkness outside was a predictor that thunder or fireworks might happen. There is also evidence that shows separation anxiety and noise sensitivity are correlated. The message here is that physical wellness is directly tied to behavioral health.
Behavior isn’t random. It always happens for a reason. Any sudden behavior change always requires a vet check.
Genetics also play a role, as some breeds may be predisposed to noise sensitivities. For example, noise sensitivity is something is the selectively bred out in hunting dogs, or they wouldn’t make very good hunting dogs. This study demonstrated that a “high comorbidity was observed between different anxieties: fearful dogs had a significantly higher noise sensitivity.”
Once you’ve ruled out possible medical or generalized anxiety issues, what do you do to help your dog feel better? Here’s some suggestions:
- Plan ahead. If possible, for things like fireworks, get out of town. When we lived near our local park where the annual fireworks went off, we would always pack the dogs up in the car and take a daytrip, usually to the drive-in movie theater, to get out of town and avoid what sounded like a warzone.
- Get medication. There are a lot of medications that can help your dog with noise sensitivities. Talk to your vet about available options and keep a stash on hand for when you need them. I am not a vet so cannot tell you what meds will work for your dog, but I will advise you to read this blog post about what NOT to use: Don’t Ace The Fear, by Dr. Marty Becker, featuring VB Dr. Karen Overall
- Comfort them. Let’s dispel the egregious myth that you will make a dog more fearful if you comfort them. This is ridiculous. If you are afraid of something and someone hugs you and comforts you with gentle words, does that make you more afraid? Of course not. It helps calm you and makes you feel better. COMFORT YOUR DOG.
- Don’t punish or force them to “face their fear.” Yelling at, forcing your dog to “face their fear” or anything that doesn’t intentionally try to help them feel better will make their fears worse and can cause increased noise sensitivity over time. There are some truly awful videos of dogs being “flooded” by fireworks where they’re tethered in a field and fireworks are shot off around them in some torturous ritual to try to teach the dog that fireworks aren’t scary. All this does is teach learned helplessness and terrorize the dog. Do not take your dog to a fireworks show to try to “help” him learn they’re not scary. That’s not how dogs learn.
- Noise Masking. Adding in lots of loud noise masking can help. Classical music won’t cut it. Loud noises to help mask the big bangs so things like box fans, air conditioners, and loud rock music are a better option than classical. Often a combination is needed so combining an air conditioner or loud fan with a movie or music is a great option.
- Create a safe space. Often a closet or interior bathroom can make a really good sound room, away from windows and exterior doors, can further help with noise masking. Creating this to be a comfy space with you sitting with your dog here can really help.
- Train. If you’ve got enough time and know what your dog’s triggers are, you can work through a gradual desensitization and counterconditioning protocol, starting with the sounds at a very low volume – so low your dog doesn’t have a reaction – and then over time gradually increasing the volume of the scary sound. Pairing the scary sound with super high value food that only comes out when the scary sound happens, is the counterconditioning part of this. This is especially helpful for sounds you can work on ahead of their arrival, like a baby being born.
- Use food and/or play. Even if you don’t have time to do a whole training plan, use high value food if your dog is scared. Adding in food can help your dog feel better about the scary noise or can at least be a distraction. Some dogs can be sufficiently distracted with stuffed Kongs, other food toys or a game of hide and seek with food, to engage your dog’s sniffing and scavenging instincts. Some dogs, if they really love to play, can be distracted or engaged in a game of tug or fetch.
- Ensure tags and microchip info are updated. While this isn’t specifically related to noise sensitivities, some sources say more dogs go lost on 4th of July than any other day of the year. They get spooked and slip out of collars or escape from fences, so it’s a good time to make sure your dog’s ID is up to date and on their collar and that your microchip registration is current.
I wish you and your pup a safe holiday!
Remember to check out my Separation Anxiety Training Foundations (SATF) course, or if you want one on one training, contact me and schedule a session! And sign up for my weekly newsletter so you never miss a post!