Many dogs overreact to sudden loud noises like a clap of thunder.
Not all canine responses to startling noises are the same. Some dogs express hyper-vigilance when they hear loud noises, while others hide in fear. Outright panic is also not an unusual reaction for some dogs.
It's important to understand the difference between the normal fear a dog expresses and fear that has become pathologic. In the latter situation a dog begins to generalize his fear of, for example, a clap of thunder, to every sudden or loud noise in his environment.
If on a bright, sunny day your dog suddenly displays his fear-of-thunder response to the rattling of pots and pans in the kitchen or the noise of a garbage truck down the block, he's generalizing his fear of the noise of a thunderstorm to every loud or unusual sound he hears.
Noise phobia, of which storm phobias constitute one class, is defined as a sudden and profound, nongraded, extreme response to noise, manifested as intense, active avoidance; escape; or anxiety behaviors associated with the activities of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Behaviors can include catatonia or mania concomitant with decreased sensitivity or responsiveness to pain or social stimuli. Once fully developed, repeated exposure results in an invariant pattern of response.
Some dogs react to noise phobias by freezing and withdrawing, while others respond by crashing through windows or chewing through restraints or enclosures. While the former behavior may seem less extreme, the fact is both reactions indicate profound suffering and damage to nerve cells.
Noise phobias in canine family members are no laughing matter.
Left untreated, the condition will invariably get worse. The development of a phobia involves a complex molecular change that isn't well understood, but seems to involve a shift in how an affected dog processes information.
Noise phobia can be inherited, so it's possible for a pup to be predisposed to the condition if dogs in his lineage have displayed overreaction to noise. The genetic connection is so direct that if one of your dog's parents overreacted to storms or other noises, you can reasonably expect your pet will have a similar response.
The problem is also known to be especially common in herding breeds, including:
- Australian Shepherd
- Border Collie
- German Shepherd Dog
- Old English Sheepdog
- Pembroke Welsh Corgi
- Shetland Sheepdog
An overreaction to loud noises can predispose your dog to other panic disorders like separation anxiety and behavioral problems.
Signs of Noise Phobia
The symptoms of noise phobia and separation anxiety are similar and include:
- Excessive panting and/or salivation
- Trembling and pacing, or freezing in place
- Uncontrolled urination/defecation
- Destructive behaviors
- Hiding or escape
In studies of phobic behaviors in dogs, it was shown that symptoms can differ by breed. For example, German Shepherds pace more than Border Collies or Australian Cattle Dogs.
Most canine anxiety disorders seem to develop between the ages of 12 and 24 months and worsen, if left untreated, as the dog matures socially.
It is also known that if a dog reacts to one noise, she is likely to react to other noises. For example, if your dog overreacts to thunderstorms, she has a 95 percent chance of responding similarly to fireworks.
Take Care Not to Reinforce Anxious Behavior
If you suspect or know your canine companion is developing a noise phobia, the first thing you'll want to do is make sure you're not rewarding his fear and anxiety.
For example, as humans we often try to comfort each other emotionally with phrases like 'It's okay.' But if to your dog the word 'okay' is usually associated with a desirable behavior, telling him 'It's okay' when he's feeling fearful or anxious can confuse him as well as reinforce his phobic behavior.
The same goes for petting an overreacting dog to comfort her. To your dog, petting is a reward, so again, you're inadvertently reinforcing her anxious behavior. And for some dogs, being petted during a phobic episode is just one more anxiety-producing element in her environment.
Calming a Panicked Pup
Rather than take action that could inadvertently reinforce anxious behavior, try simply observing your dog during a fearful episode and see what you can do to calm him.
- You might lead or remove him to a quiet room in your home and either leave him alone there to self-soothe (as long as he’s not frantic), or stay quietly with him. A silent, still environment can often provide relief.
- Some phobic dogs will seek out dark, quiet corners on their own where they can calm themselves, so consider providing a darkened room, a closet floor, or space under a table or desk for a frightened pet. The goal is to give your dog a secure spot that helps him calm himself. If he continues to panic in his dark, quiet space, it isn’t what he needs to help him relax.
- Play calm, soothing music (MusicMyPet.com, PetMusic.com) before a possible stressor occurs. This may both relax your dog and drown out distressing noises.
- You can also try putting gentle, continuous pressure on your pet to calm her. If your dog will allow it, try leaning gently on or against her without petting or stroking. If this is helping your pup, you’ll feel her muscles begin to relax. If instead she seems to grow more anxious, this isn’t a technique that will be helpful for her.
- If your dog seems to respond well to pressure applied to her body, there are wraps available (Thundershirt.com, Anxietywrap.com, Stormdefender.com) that many pet owners and veterinarians find extremely helpful.
- Ttouch is a specific massage technique that may also help anxious pets.
- Consult your holistic vet about homeopathic, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Bach Flower Remedies that could be helpful in alleviating your dog’s stress. Some products I use, always in conjunction with behavior modification:
- Herbsmith Calm Shen
- Homeopathic aconitum or Hyland’s Calms Forte
- Bach Rescue Remedy or other similar remedies depending on the animal
- Spirit Essence Storm Soother
- OptiBalance Fear & Phobias Formula
- The essential oil of lavender has been proven to reduce a dog's stress response. I recommend placing a few drops on your dog's collar or bedding before a stressor occurs, if possible.
- If your dog is crate trained, he may go there voluntarily to self-soothe, or you can lead the way. A blanket draped over the crate may help him relax.
However, if your dog doesn't normally use a crate, or worse, has a fear of crates due to a past bad experience, this isn't the time to use one. Under no circumstances should a fearful pup be forced into a crate either when he's already anxious, or in anticipation of a panic response to weather or other noises. Your dog will feel trapped, which will make both his phobia and his reaction to it worse.
- If your dog is afraid of storms or other loud outside noises, leaving her outdoors while she's anxious or panicked is a really bad idea. Dogs regularly run away or seriously injure themselves attempting to escape outdoor enclosures or runs during storms, fireworks displays, and other noisy events.
In addition to learning what calms your phobic dog, it's also important to work to extinguish the overreaction.
Behavior modification techniques like desensitization, counter-conditioning or a combination are most often used to help anxiety-related canine conditions.
Desensitizing involves exposing your dog to the noises he overreacts to. There are tapes, records, CDs and internet sites that mimic all sorts of noises, including storms, exploding fireworks, car backfires and even gunshots.
This approach works better with dogs in the beginning stages of a phobia, and not so well with dogs suffering from fully entrenched phobias. I recommend you consult with a professional on how best to address your dog's fear issue, as there isn't a cookie cutter approach to fixing the problem that can be applied to every dog.
Counter-conditioning involves rewarding your dog for not reacting, typically with a food treat that competes with his ability to react to a noise stimulus. The Clever K9 is a treat-release puzzle toy that can be very useful during the counter-conditioning process.
Changing How Your Dog Perceives His Environment
Other potentially helpful devices to calm your anxious pup:
- Eye shades that either block all light or diffuse the light can help some dogs relax. You can try a basic eye mask intended for humans or a pair of tinted Doggles.
- You can also try blocking the intensity of the sounds your pet hears. Ear protection for dogs is available from Mutt Muffs.
- Invest in a D.A.P.™ collar or diffuser for your dog. D.A.P. is an acronym for Dog Appeasing Pheromone and is designed to have a calming affect on dogs. The collar seems to work well for many dog owners with pups suffering from separation anxiety and other stress-related behaviors.
Asking for Help
If nothing you attempt seems to help your phobic pet, I recommend consulting an animal behaviorist in your area through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
Alternatively, you can visit the Animal Behavior Society website, where you can find a directory of Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs). Many of these experts have websites and do phone and online consultations.