It’s that time of year again; time for pool parties, shrimps on the barbie, and fireworks. Huge, loud, fantastic fireworks that light-up the sky with brilliant white as people ooh-aaah with delight. It may also be that time of year when you find Fido shaking and cowering beneath your bedroom nightstand as if certain the world is about to end. “Oh don’t worry Fido it’s okay,” you might say but Fido’s not going to be convinced, oh no, not nearly that easily.
Fear of loud noises is a common problem in dogs though the reasons aren’t well understood. It is suspected that early socialization experiences and genetics have the greatest influence on their reactions. We also know that animals with an established history of sound sensitivity often worsen over time without treatment. This fear can soon become a phobia, which is defined as a persistent, excessive, and irrational fear response. Elderly animals may get better simply because they lose their hearing.
Dogs with mild to moderately fear may tremble, pant, pace, hide or drool. More severely affected dogs may soil in the house, destroy furniture or become so frantic they destroy doors and windows trying to escape, often injuring themselves in the process.
The treatment for this fear usually includes one or more of the following: management, behavior modification and anti-anxiety products.
Management includes changing the environment so your dog is more comfortable. You can do this by trying to reduce or block noise levels items that produce white noise such as running a fan or air-conditioner. Playing a TV or radio at moderately high levels can also drown many noises. Allowing your pet access to the basement or a room without outside walls or windows may also decrease the noise level. Mutt muffs, a product originally designed to protect the ears of dogs that fly in planes have also been used with great success.
If you take your dog outside for toileting or any other activity when frightened, make sure he won’t be able to escape. Many dogs are lost each year running in fear from a noise.
The two basic techniques of behavior modification are routinely employed in treating dogs with noise phobia are desensitization and counter-conditioning. Desensitization is all presenting a stimulus that is frightening at a low enough intensity that it does not induce a fear response in the animal that fears it, then gradually increasing the intensity until the stimulus no longer elicits the fear response. Example – if I wanted to desensitize a dog to specific noise I could record that noise and play it at low enough levels so no fear response is evoked. I would then gradually increase the volume as the dogs comfort level permits until I could play the noise quite loud and the dog would be at ease with it.
Counter-conditioning is all about changing pre-existing association with a stimuli. Example – to get a dog over his fear of a noise I could present that noise, then take it away and immediately give the something really wonderful like several pieces of baked chicken. It would not matter what the dog did after hearing the noise; he could bark, run or jump. The important thing is that the chicken always came after the noise. Over time the dogs association with the noise would change from Yikes! to Yippee! as the once scary noise has now come predict something wonderful.
These two behavior modification methods are often used together to provide a cure. Unfortunately, some dogs with thunder phobias can not be helped with these methods as the fear is believed to be initiated by the atmospheric pressure changes prior to the dog hearing any thunder noise.
There are also a wide variety of anxiety reducing products on the market today. Over the counter products that have been used successfully include flower essences, melatonin, and dog appeasing pheromones. Prescription drug therapy is another tool that can be used. In more extreme cases, alternative therapy or drug therapy helps take the edge off so that the behavior modification techniques can take hold.
Cynthia Edgerly, owner of Bingo! Dog Training in Watsonville, CA, is a Professional Dog Trainer & Certified Dog Behavior Consultant.