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Fireworks, Thunder And Other Noise Phobias

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Did you know that a quarter of dog owners report that their dog has a noise phobia?  And nearly half say that their dog would show at least one fear sign if there was a loud noise? If your dog struggles with loud noises, such as fireworks and thunder, you are not alone. 

What is a noise phobia?

Fear is a normal reaction that protects your dog from potentially harmful situations, and anxiety is a worry associated with the apprehension of that fear. Importantly, a phobia is defined as an “extreme or irrational level of fear associated with a situation or object”. The key words here are ‘extreme’ and ‘irrational’ – your dog has never been hurt by thunder or fireworks, so the strong fear response seen to these noises is out of proportion to the level of threat. 

In some cases, such as a fear of storms, the phobia can be multi-sensory – dogs can be sensitive to the noise of the wind, the sound of rain and even the changes in air pressure!

What are the signs?

Just like in people, phobias tend to develop over time – dogs that start with milder signs usually progress to the more extreme signs over time unless action is taken. 

Common signs include: 

  • Hiding 
  • Vocalising (barking/howling/crying) 
  • Trembling 
  • Producing more saliva than usual 
  • Restlessness/pacing 
  • Change in neediness – becoming more clingy or wanting to be alone 
  • Chewing 
  • Digging 
  • Toileting inside

When do they develop?

Most noise phobias develop in dogs over one year old, although a dog of any age can have a fright associated with a sound and develop a phobia from that experience. 

Older dogs are also at risk of developing noise phobias, even if they have never had a fear of that sound in the past. This can stem from a new negative experience, but can also be part of aging or the development of cognitive dysfunction (doggy dementia) or other old age problems such as arthritis. 

It is important to never assume your dog will always cope with loud or new noises – one bad experience coupled with a noise can undo years of good behavioural conditioning. This, along with the crowds, is why you should never bring dogs to a firework show!

Preventing noise phobias from developing

Prevention is better than cure, and teaching puppies to accept a range of noises is the best way to do this. This is especially effective during the socialisation period, when puppies are most open to new experiences of all kinds. 

As with teaching all new experiences, positive reinforcement is key. Any time your puppy displays positive behaviour, they get a reward! For teaching sounds, this simply means rewarding any happy or relaxed behaviour while that sound is audible. 

Of course, you can’t always conjure up a thunderstorm or a fireworks show right on cue – to help, sound CDs/tracks and mobile apps have been developed to allow you to play these sounds to your puppy. Start by playing them quietly, and gradually turn up the volume over the course of a week or so, depending on how your puppy reacts. If you see any negative reaction to a sound, turn it down and start again quieter, keeping up the positive reinforcement. 

It’s also important for your puppy to get used to noises in the wider environment – make sure to turn the hoover on, and expose your puppy to traffic noises (if your puppy is not covered by vaccination, you can carry them outside to have a listen – it’s not safe to put them on the verge or pavement until their vaccine course is finished and has had time to take effect).

What can I do if my dog is afraid of noise?

The action will depend on what noise your dog is scared of, and if you are present or not at the time. Understandably, it is easier to manage a phobia that only happens when you are present (for example, the hoover) than one that may happen while you are out of the house (such as a thunderstorm). 

Managing established phobias is usually achieved via a process called counter-conditioning. This simply means slowly changing your dog’s association of a sound from one of fear to a positive response. This is very similar to the method used to train puppies to accept the sounds in the first place, but because the fear reaction is already present this must be done much more slowly and with higher rewards.

If you are struggling with a phobia in your dog, we recommend speaking to your local Vets4Pets vet, who may also recommend a referral to a fully-certified behaviourist or trainer depending on the scale of the behaviour.

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