Many owners have had to deal with the incredibly frustrating problem of controlling a dog reacting to loud noises. Whilst many dogs will be startled by a sudden unexpected noise, some will exhibit severe behavioural responses to such sounds. Common sources of noise phobias include thunder storms, gun fire, and fireworks although any noise could be a potential stimulus for some dogs.
Dogs have a natural fear response to many stimuli. This is a safety mechanism to warn of danger and prepare them to defend themselves. However if a response to a given stimuli becomes excessive or disproportionate to the danger presented, then it often referred to as a phobia. Noise phobia refers to the irrational and exaggerated response to a given aural stimuli. Some dogs will exhibit signs of storm phobia which may also be a noise phobia but may primarily be triggered by changes in barometric pressure and other innocuous stimuli other than noise. Thus it is essential to get the correct diagnosis for the problem before attempting to manage it.
Noise Phobia Dog Behaviours
The types of behaviour described by owners of noise phobic dogs are varied but tend to include hiding, destructive behaviours, intense vocalisation, escape and inappropriate toileting/soiling behaviours. Although an owners natural tendency may be to console their dog during times of stimulus to avoid inappropriate behaviours, this can in fact reinforce the behaviour. Dogs suffering from noise phobia can, during an episode, experience "a decreased sensitivity to pain or social stimuli". These dogs are at risk of injuring themselves during their heightened state as they are less aware of the pain of the sustained injury. Thus severe injury and escape injuries can be suffered by these animals.
Noise stimuli can sometimes be predicted with some degree of accuracy. For example New Year's Eve fireworks displays, weather warnings of severe thunderstorm activity approaching your region and the like can help predict the onset of a phobic dogs responses. However very often these occasions cannot be predicted.
For predictable occasions, the use of pet meds such as anxiolytics and sedatives can have some effect in reducing the dog's anxiety and reactions. This is however a short term fix and has no residual effect for next time the stimulus is encountered.
A veterinarian experienced in canine behavioural issues should be consulted prior to starting a management program so that one can be designed specifically for your dogs needs. Your veterinarian can then help monitor your dog's progress and modify the treatment plan at any stage if required.
Managing the Dog Noise Phobia
Management of the noise phobic dog requires a very dedicated owner and a multifaceted approach. Firstly owners should be aware that a 'cure' is unlikely in these cases. Management of the fear responses to an acceptable level is the aim in most cases.
Desensitisation can be a useful component of management if the stimulus can be accurately identified as a noise. For example storm phobic dogs who respond to changes in barometric pressure will not respond to desensitisation with a noise CD. Desensitisation works on the premise that the animal is exposed to the noise stimulus (thunder, fireworks) at a low level which does not have an anxiety inducing effect. The animal is praised for its appropriate behaviour and the intensity of the sound is gradually increased over time. Positive reinforcement continues and the dog may become able to tolerate the noise stimulus at a level similar to the intensity experienced in its natural state. Owners can create their own CDs or DVDs of the noxious stimuli or purchase them premade from many pet retailers. Desensitisation alone is often not effective.
Counter-conditioning is used in conjunction with desensitisation. This involves eliciting a response incompatible with the phobia such as feeding a dog treat or playing with the dog with a dog toy whilst the noise is played at a low level. A positive association can then be established and the desensitisation program/conditioning can continue at an increased level of intensity. At no time should the animal exhibit fear responses to the stimuli. If this occurs the noise is too strong.
It is recommended that the desensitisation/counter-conditioning begin at a time of year when the chances of the stimuli being naturally occurring are at their lowest.
The behaviour modification phases of managing noise phobias are intensive and should be performed several times a day where possible. However many owners find that anxiolytic pet medications are required in conjunction with behavioural modification in order to get the best results. Your veterinarian can advise on which pet medications can be used long-term and which pet medications are best for use only when a negative event is predictable.
Another adjunctive treatment is the use of dog-appeasing pheromones in the environment. One study demonstrated a general reduction in fear in firework fearful dogs although variations between animals were evident.
Managing noise phobias in dogs is often a frustrating challenge which must be approached with patience and the help of a veterinary practitioner or animal behaviouralist for the best results. The difficulty can first be in determining whether the dog is actually noise phobic or if some other innocuous cue from the event is stimulating their reactions. If noise is the stimulus then a combination of desensitisation, counter-conditioning, environmental enhancement and anxiolytic pet medications can be employed to help ease the problem. Owners should be aware that they are aiming at reducing the degree of the reaction as opposed to necessarily eliminating it altogether. If expectations are managed and patience and strict adherence to the vet devised program is followed then a reasonable result may be gained. Any dog with a noise phobia should have adequate identification tags/microchipping or the like done so that they can be identified and returned to their owner if they do escape during an episode of anxiety and fear.