Causes Intense Suffering and Nerve Damage in Certain Dogs, Is Yours at Risk?

dog noise aversion

Story at-a-glance -

  • Noise aversion in a dog means he or she has a fearful reaction to certain sounds in the environment
  • There are a number of ways noise aversion can develop, and certain breeds are predisposed. It’s important to take noise phobia seriously early on, and to recognize your dog is suffering
  • Dogs who develop sensitivity to one noise typically become reactive to other noises as well
  • There are a many things you can do to help your noise-phobic dog, including providing a safe place to rest, offering natural calming remedies and most importantly, employing behavior modification techniques designed to alleviate noise aversion

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Canine noise aversion is a condition in which there is a fearful or apprehensive response to certain sounds that makes the dog want to put distance between himself and the racket. Three sounds that are universally anxiety producing in dogs with noise aversion are fireworks, thunder and gunshots.

However, there is a long list of everyday sounds in the environment that can also bother a sensitive dog. For example, doors slamming shut, loud TV shows or videos, car or truck engine noises, children shrieking, the garbage truck out on the street, and much more.

How Noise Aversion Develops, and At-Risk Breeds

According to a 2008 study, dogs tend to develop noise aversion in one of four ways:1

  • Lack of habituation — The dog encounters a novel, startling sound and fails to learn that it has no consequence or meaning, continuing to show fear instead.
  • Stress-induced dishabituation — The dog experienced a stressful event and was therefore at a higher level of stress at the same moment of the environmental sound and was unable to cope with the noise as it previously had, resulting in a fear response.
  • Sensitization — A noise bothers the dog more and more over time, causing it to be more sensitive to it rather than learning to ignore it.
  • Social transmission — The dog learned to fear a noise from another dog in the household.

Any dog can develop a noise phobia, but for some reason herding dogs are more predisposed than other breed, including:

Australian Shepherd

Old English Sheepdog

Border Collie

Pembroke Welsh Corgi

German Shepherd

Shetland Sheepdog

Interestingly, early spay/neuter has also been linked to noise phobias, including thunderstorms, in certain breeds.

How to Know if Your Dog Has a Noise Phobia

Not all canine responses to a startling noise look the same. For example, some dogs become hyper-vigilant, some hide in fear and others completely panic. Your dog's reaction may be to freeze and withdraw, chew through her leash or crate door, or crash through a window.

Whatever form noise phobia takes, it's important to understand your dog is experiencing intense suffering and damage to nerve cells. The most common signs of noise phobia include:

Excessive panting and/or salivation

Uncontrolled urination and/or defecation

Vocalization

Destructive behaviors

Trembling and pacing, or freezing in place

Hiding or escape

Most noise aversion behaviors seem to develop in dogs who are 1 to 2 years of age, and left untreated, worsen as the dog becomes socially mature. In addition, dogs who react to one noise typically develop sensitivity to other noises. For example, if your dog has a fear of thunderstorms, she has a 95 percent chance of responding similarly to fireworks.

How to Help a Dog With Noise Aversion

If your four-legged family member is displaying signs of noise aversion, the first thing you'll want to do is make sure you're not inadvertently rewarding her fear and anxiety. For example, if you tell her she's a "Good dog" when she performs a desirable behavior, take care not to use that term when she's showing fear or anxiety.

The same goes for petting your dog to comfort her. To her, petting is a reward, so again, you could be inadvertently reinforcing her anxious behavior if you pet her when she's feeling fearful. In addition, for some dogs, being petted during a phobic episode is just one more anxiety-producing element in their environment.

Rather than saying or doing something that might reinforce anxious behavior, try simply observing your dog during a fearful episode and see what you can do to help calm her. For example:

Try coaxing her to a quiet area of your home where she's completely unable to hear the noise stressor and either leave her alone there to self-soothe (as long as she's not frantic), or stay quietly with her. 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. The goal is to give your dog a secure spot that helps her calm herself. If she continues to panic in her dark, quiet space, it isn't what she needs to help her relax.

Play calm, soothing music like MusicMyPet before a potential stressor occurs. This may help to relax your dog and drown out distressing noises.

Try putting gentle, continuous pressure on your pet to calm her. If she'll allow it, try leaning gently on or against her without petting or stroking. If this is helping, you'll feel her muscles begin to relax. If instead she seems to grow more anxious, this isn't a technique that will be beneficial for her.

If your dog seems to respond well to pressure applied to her body, there are wraps available like the Thundershirt that many pet owners and veterinarians find extremely helpful.

Ttouch is a specific massage technique that may also help anxious pets.

Consult your holistic veterinarian about homeopathic, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and 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 calming flower essences such as Storm Soother or Stress Stopper

CBD oil

Place a few drops of the essential oil of lavender on your dog's collar or bedding before a stressor occurs, if possible. Even better, learn more about zoopharmacognosy, which allows your pet to self-select remedies that best soothe her during periods of anxiety.

Try blocking the intensity of the sounds your pet hears. Ear protection for dogs is available from Mutt Muffs.

Invest in an Adaptil collar or diffuser for your dog. Adaptil is a pheromone designed to have a calming effect on dogs.

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 the worst thing you can do. Dogs regularly run away or seriously injure themselves attempting to escape outdoor enclosures or runs during storms, fireworks displays and other noisy events.

The Importance of Behavior Modification for Dogs With Noise Aversion

In addition to learning what calms your phobic dog, it's also important to work to extinguish the overreaction, and the sooner the behavior is addressed, the better. Behavior modification techniques like desensitization and counter-conditioning are often used to help anxiety-related canine behaviors.

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 one-size-fits-all approach to fixing the problem that can be applied to every dog, and doing it wrong can make the situation worse.

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.

Dog trainer Susan Garrett uses fun games as a great way to help dogs focus on something besides their fear. Games need to be taught prior to the sound stressor occurring and need to be instituted before the scary sounds commence, but this is often an effective way to help dogs work through noise phobias. Here's one of Susan's videos in which she discusses using games to help with firework anxiety:

Most importantly, if what you're doing isn't helping your dog's noise phobia, it's important to work with a qualified animal behaviorist before the behavior escalates. The earlier you intervene, the sooner your dog will learn the skills necessary to cope with the sounds that life inevitably brings.