It is a dark and stormy night. Thunder crashes. The wind knocks branches loudly against the house. Your neighbors are taking advantage of the cover of darkness to set off fireworks, even in the rain. The noise is terrifying – for your dog.
“For a dog who is so upset by certain noises that he can’t eat or settle, or injures himself or others when the noise is present, often a professional trainer is the last resort before the dog is rehomed or even euthanized,” says Helen St. Pierre, owner and head trainer at No More Monkey Business dog training in Concord, NH. “This time of year, as the weather warms up, thunder and fireworks are more common, you find people calling the trainer in a panic over how to help their pet.”
Noise phobias are among the most common issues that dog owners bring to trainers, sometimes as a last resort before an owner rehomes or, in dire cases, euthanizes a truly noise-phobic canine. Noise phobia is an excessive fear of a sound that results in the dog attempting to avoid or escape from the sound. It's an irrational, intense and persistent fear response that can develop at any age and in any dog breed. Trying to escape from the noise, a dog's normal instinctive behavior is to seek shelter to avoid danger. But things can go awry when dogs overreact to sounds that don’t represent danger.
Characteristic behavior can include but may not be limited to hiding, urinating, defecating, chewing, drooling, panting, pacing, trembling, shaking, and barking. A truly fearful dog might try to escape the noise by jumping through windows or chewing through walls, and running away, or his anxiety might manifest as aggressive behavior.
St. Pierre notes that dogs can present with phobias to any noise – thunder and fireworks, certainly, but also to stapleguns, phones ringing, motorcycles, pots and pans banging together, etc.
“It seems for most dogs that noises that are unpredictable, that come up out of nowhere from the dog’s perspective, are the most likely to provoke an anxiety response,” St. Pierre says.
While it’s hard to say for sure whether anxiety in dogs is on the rise, it is known that the anxiety cycle can be self-perpetuating, such that without intervention, often the phobia gets worse the older the dog gets, and there may be some genetic component as some breeds appear to have more issues with anxiety than others. These breeds may also suffer from anxiety that is more intense. The list of “anxiety-prone” breeds tends to include Australian shepherd, Bichon frise, Border collie, Cocker spaniel, German shepherd, Greyhound, Poodle, and Vizsla.
St. Pierre’s recommendation: “Go ahead and comfort your dog. While there is a role for desensitization and for not reinforcing your dog’s fears, we’re finding that in the long run, addressing your dog’s anxiety is better than punishing or ignoring it. Sometimes they just need a safe place to go and a hug.”
For St. Pierre, often the most effective training technique is “to eventually be able to make scary time into treat- and play-time. As soon as the thunder starts, break out special toys, get down on the floor and play with your dog, bring on the chicken treats… You want your dog to realize that while there are scary noises, the noise also means that it’s time for attention and good things.”
For dogs who are at risk to themselves or others because of noise phobias, a combination of training and medication, prescribed by a veterinarian, may offer your pet the best support.
What about cases of mild noise phobia, where your dog isn’t losing its mind completely, but is still upset? Many dogs will seek support from their humans, climbing into a lap or otherwise seeking physical reassurance. Others might look for a place to hide.
“If your dog wants to hide out during a thunderstorm or when a motorcycle parade is going past your house, give the dog a safe place as a go-to. This could be her crate, or her bed, or a room where the dog has previously felt comfortable,” says St. Pierre. “If you have a dog who likes to hide under furniture or in corners, consider putting a leash on your dog so you can pull them out, without risk to yourself, if you need to move the dog while he or she is still upset.
Keep in mind that not all training methods are appropriate for an anxious dog or a dog who is upset by unpredictable noises or loud voices. “For a dog with noise phobias, or really any kind of anxiety issue, you especially do not want a trainer who escalates quickly to intrusive measures or very strong corrections.”
An appropriate trainer will know how to use a combination of positive and negative reinforcements to help your dog reframe his noise phobia into feeling that scary noises are survivable, and maybe even as time for fun. St. Pierre recommends asking for and checking a trainer’s references, enquiring how much continuing education the trainer does on an annual basis, and looking for certifications or membership in national and international dog training groups.