Thank you to Jenny Treanor from the thedogtreanor.com working alongside our vets in order to create an informative and accurate source of information for you.
Most dogs will at least jump at very loud and nearby noises such as a plate dropping and smashing or a sudden scream from someone that got a fright. However, there are a number of dogs who live with an underlying fear of noises, some understandable for us, many not. This can range from bin lorries to whistles, from fireworks to creaky doors and everything in between. As we come closer to Halloween or New Year it is common for families to look for help to help their dogs through these difficult times and this article is intended to help with exactly that, however, these strategies will not fix the issue, merely prevent it getting significantly worse in a short space of time. It is very important to seek help from an accredited professional (trainer or behaviourist) to sort out the underlying issues that your dog is having. Long term stress and anxieties cause physical health problems, just like with us. No one wants to have to struggle through daily living or even just holidays, and you can help your dog get on top of these issues.
Fear, anxiety, stress and phobias
It is important to put into context what some of these dogs are going through. We are not often dealing with logical or decided upon reactions to stimuli (noises in this case), rather they are reacting at the moment without any preparation or reasoning. There is no goal in mind other than getting away or making the scary thing go away.
- Fear is a response to something that is actually happening. It happens at a specific time, it has a duration, something causes it. There is a direct threat or actual danger.
- Anxiety is a fear of fear. It involves prediction (whether right or wrong) that something dangerous is going to happen. This involves perception or threat rather than a necessarily real or tangible threat. (Our perceptions are irrelevant here, it is purely about what your dog perceives).
- Stress is a biological response to a triggering event. Anything that challenges your dog (or indeed you) causes stress. Some stress is good so that we can learn, others when consistent and elevated cause chronic stress and thus cause physical health damage.
- Phobia is a response to excessive fear or anxiety that is out of proportion with the actual threat or danger presented. This excessive response causes learning and potentially physical damage.
The more often a dog gets scared to any level by a trigger it can lead them to develop anxiety about future noises. If there is a situation where we do not minimise the impact of the noises that they are afraid of we get stress responses. The scarier from your dog’s point of view, the more stress develops. There is a real risk of these responses leeching over onto other noises. The more different noises your dog fears the more stress response over time that they undergo. From there we run the risk of developing chronic stress and them developing physical illnesses.
What do noise phobias look like?
The typical view of noise phobias and fears are loud, frantic, and intense. Some dogs will pace, pant, shake and look restless. Some will vocalise through whining, crying, howling, or insistent barking. Some will become destructive to toys, household objects, or even themselves or others. However, these are not the only responses we can get in times of fear. Some dogs will completely shut down. They will not go and hide, rather they will sit still, staring into the distance, not engaging with others, food or things that typically interest them. They seem sad, dejected, or even depressed. There are no sudden jumps as the loud noises happen, just a retreat into themselves. These are noticed a lot less often but are just as severe as their noisy counterparts. The big things to look out for are:
- Change in behaviour
- Sweaty pads (look for wet paw prints on tiles or hardwood floors)
- Easily startled
- Low mood
- Frustration (biting, nipping, chewing, destructive behaviour)
- Disengaging from usual activities
- Disruptive behaviour (barking, pacing, robbing things)
- Hiding, running away
What can we do to help?
There are no quick fixes for any behaviour problems, in dogs or in people. We need to tackle the issue from two fronts. The first is to put strategies in place to prevent the problems from getting worse. The second then is to start training with an accredited trainer or behaviourist. Check on APDT or IMDT for a list of local accredited trainers, or IMDT, APBC, CCAB or IAABC for accredited behaviourists, if a trainer or behaviourist is not listed on one of these sites, they are not accredited and may not have the necessary skills or knowledge to properly help you.
- Minimise the noise impact
- We want to avoid the fear, stress, or anxiety from building in the first place. The more your dog practices these feelings, the stronger they get. We also don’t want to just drown out the noises as this can create a sensory overload and also prove too much for your dog. Choose white noise such as a playlist of rainfall or waterfalls. This cancels out many of the frequencies of the offending noises rather than trying to drown them out.
- For dogs that have issues with everyday noises, pre-empt these noises and get your dog away from them before they start or have your white noise on before they do. The more predictable they are the easier it will be to manage them.
- Create a safe space. When scared, a dog needs a bolt hole. That is, a place to go where they can feel safe and aren’t worried about the source of their anxieties getting to them. Let your dog choose this spot. It will be a place where they tend to go anyway when they get scared or nervous. Create a small cosy space here. For example, have an old square laundry basket on its side with a bed inside and a towel over it. Do not force your dog to go to this place when noises kick-off but make sure it is always accessible for them to get to.
There are a huge number of tools and training methods available to get your dog through these difficulties. These must be applied safely and under the supervision of a trained professional. It is very easy to misinterpret what is going on with your dog or to miss something that might be contributing to your dog’s discomfort. Applying a training protocol or behaviour modification sequence without verifying all the variables and spotting potential pitfalls can be dangerous for you or your dog.
Beware of shortcuts. There are none in behaviour that work to solve the underlying issue, there are many that will just mask the problem leaving it open to increase in potency unchecked. This can lead to serious issues such as a redirected bite towards family due to suppressed fear or severe self-harm.
For most dogs, a simple training protocol designed for your specific dog will be straightforward to implement and will not take an excessive amount of time to traverse. However, be prepared, some dog’s issues are such that it may require anywhere from weeks to years to fully recover, however, most are completed in the weeks to months bracket.
There are prescription medications available to help your pet deal with noise phobias. As mentioned above it is vital that these are used in conjunction with a trainer to help your pet deal with the fear of noise. There are numerous medications ranging from nutraceuticals to prescription drugs. These medications carry side effects and do not come without potential risks, we, therefore, recommend working with a trainer over a long period to help your pet cope with the noise and allow them to have a less fearful reaction in the first place. Medications cannot make up for a lack of behaviour training programme and so we usually advise owners that alone they may have little impact. When given alongside a good training plan with a professional behaviourist or trainer we can make a big impact with your pet and in many instances, the need for medications can be eliminated. Some medications take a few days or weeks to become effective so it is best to consult your vet before the big noise event e.g. Halloween or New Year to get the best result.
Alternatively, there are products available to help create a more calming environment for your pet, such as adaptil or feliway these products mimic pheromones that our pets find calming and soothing and can help manage fear and anxiety. Thunder shirts have increased in popularity over the last few years and work off the principal of gentle constant compression to help calm your pet.