For an introduction to this topic please see our handout on "Fears, Phobias, and Anxiety in Cats and Dogs".
Why is my dog so frightened of noises such as thunder, firecrackers, and vehicles?
Noise aversions are quite common, with estimates of 1/3 of the canine population affected. Single traumatic experiences or repeated exposure to frightening stimuli can cause reactions ranging from mild fear to extreme phobic reactions. Mild fear responses may include panting, pacing, and attempts to hide, whereas phobic responses may include panic, extreme agitation, attempts to escape and/or destructive behavior.
"Noise aversions are quite common, with estimates of 1/3 of the canine population affected."
Fear can be normal and adaptive (e.g., startling from a loud clap of thunder), yet phobias are exaggerated and excessive responses which are maladaptive (e.g., trembling in the bathtub for hours after a clap of thunder). The dog’s recovery period from the noise will give some indication as to if the behavior is normal or harmful to the dog’s physical health and emotional well-being. Noise aversions are likely to worsen when left untreated, with a fear of one specific sound likely to generalize to fear of other sounds, whether similar or different.
Some dogs may have an inherent sensitivity to noises (i.e., a genetic predisposition). However, experiences and learning play an important role in the development of noise aversion.
The onset of noise sensitivity may occur during different developmental or life stages. They might arise during the socialization period (3 to 12 weeks of age) or during the first sensitive fear period (8 to 10 weeks of age). Profound fear during the socialization period suggests a genetic cause; puppies prior to 5 weeks of age should be social, friendly, and readily recover from traumatic experiences without permanent aversions. Yet, by 8 weeks of age the brain in adult-like and traumatic experiences are remembered or retained into adulthood. During the juvenile period (begins at 3 to 4 months of age and ends at sexual maturity or approximately 5 to 14 months depending on the individual), puppies are exiting the socialization period and may display fear of the unfamiliar. Noise aversions may have an onset during adolescence (sexual maturity between 5 to 36 months of age depending on the individual) or they may emerge in the adult dog at social maturity (2 to 3 years of age).
Medical conditions such as pain (i.e., ear infection or arthritis) have been associated with noise sensitivity in dogs. Noise aversions presenting in senior dogs (7 to10 years of age) and geriatric dogs (those surpassing life expectancy) are more likely to be associated with medical conditions including pain, declining neurological function, sensory perception, endocrine imbalances, and/or cognitive dysfunction syndrome.
What can I do to prevent a fear of sounds and what treatments might reduce fear and phobic reactions?
- Selecting a puppy or adult dog who is not shy or demonstrating fearful behavior is a good start. With purebred dogs, the genetics and temperament of the parents may be known. Certain herding and working dogs may be predisposed to noise sensitivities.
- Early socialization experiences (e.g., handling and environmental exposure) should incorporate use of positive reinforcement (food treats), and those experiences must occur during the socialization period (the first 3 to 12 weeks of age) and beyond. Early exposure should include positive exposure to noises that may be experienced later in life.
- Avoid exposure to traumatic experiences as it is difficult to learn to ignore these experiences with repeated exposure to fear inducing stimuli. While early and appropriate socialization is important for shaping a dog’s future behavior, socialization is not beneficial if repeated experiences induce fear responses.
- Avoid using punishment or correction as a way of mitigating fear or phobic reactions. Discipline is unlikely to reduce fear and it is likely to make the situation worse.
- Avoid adding drama with extensive coddling or consoling of the dog when afraid. The change in your behavior may justify or become predictive of the fear inducing stimulus, thereby exacerbating it. Alternatively, while attention may calm the dog in the moment, attention does not teach the dog to not be afraid of specific stimuli. Instead, it conditions attention-seeking behavior when afraid as a coping strategy, leading to codependence. This coping strategy can be problematic when the dog is exposed to fear inducing stimuli in your absence. Therefore, attention and consoling should not be the primary strategy for addressing a fear of noises.
- Behavior modification utilizing classical conditioning and positive reinforcement can be used to encourage positive emotional responses with a sound that might induce fear. Here a positive reinforcer (typically a food treat) is paired with the sound of stimuli that might induce fear. A positive emotional response is conditioned with the sound of stimuli rather than a neutral or negative (fear) emotional response.
- Behavior modification techniques (systematic desensitization and counter conditioning) can be used to facilitate gradual controlled exposure to fear inducing stimuli without inducing fear responses. Food treats are often used to classically condition (neutral to pleasant) or counter conditioning (unpleasant to pleasant) the underlying emotional response. This training should be done under the direction of a qualified animal behaviorist or a skilled positive reinforcement trainer to insure proper implementation. Improper implementation can result in an increase in fear and anxiety.
- Your veterinarian may prescribe medications and/or nutritional supplements to help reduce fear and phobic responses in dogs. Dexmedetomidine, formulated in an oral gel applied to the gums (brand name Sileo®) and imepitoin (brand name Pexion®) two such medications that your veterinarian may prescribe for noise aversions in dogs. Medications are sometimes necessary to help facilitate learning and provide the ability to cope when the sounds cannot be controlled or avoided, such as thunder.
Who should I contact if my dog is fearful or phobic of sounds?
Dogs that experience extreme fear and/or phobic behaviors need professional intervention. The first place to start is with scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can rule in or rule out medical conditions that may cause or exacerbate your dog’s behavioral response. Your veterinarian may diagnose the behavioral condition, prescribe medication, and design a treatment plan for the dog’s specific condition. Your veterinarian may refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or a certified applied animal behaviorist.
"Dogs that experience extreme fear and/or phobic behaviors need professional intervention."
Dogs who exhibit extreme fear or phobia are emotionally suffering, at risk of harming themselves or personal property, and may be predisposed to developing other serious behavioral problems.
Dogs that experience fear and phobic reactions in response to noises are at risk of developing separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is essentially a panic attack which occurs when the dog is left home alone. Clinical signs often include destructive behavior, inappropriate elimination, and excessive vocalizations.
What can I do to help my pet be less afraid of noises?
- Whenever possible avoid or minimize the sounds that frighten your dog. Continuing to expose your dog to the sounds will likely increase his fear and anxiety.
- Environmental modifications can be made to decrease the perception of some noises.
- White noise or a noisy bathroom exhaust fan may be used to lessen sounds, like fireworks or thunder. Music therapy may promote calming and lessen sounds that trigger anxiety.
- Visual stimuli (e.g., lightning or trees blowing in the wind) which precede the noises may be lessened with window blinds or shades. If properly introduced and accepted by the dog, a Thundercap® may be used to lessen visualization of stimuli associated with noises that induce anxiety.
- Treats or a long-lasting food toy may be offered to the dog with the sound of stimuli that has induce fear in the past. In mild cases, this may condition a positive emotion associated with the sound. Fear shuts down appetite, so if your dog will not take food this is a sign he is too afraid.
- Positive reinforcement and redirection may be helpful. Your dog may be provided with a safe place to go when afraid and cued to go to that location for reinforcement. This may be an interior room of the home away from windows. A food dispensing toy may be offered in this location as a distraction. In the absence of triggers that induce fear or phobia, the dog may be trained or rewarded for spending time on this location. Treats given this location foster a positive association with the area.
- Body wraps, such as a Thundershirt® or Anxiety Wrap®, may promote calming and lessen ambulatory behavior in dogs. A Storm Defender Cape™ may function as a body wrap and reduce static discharge associated with anxiety.
- Adaptil® (dog appeasing pheromone) and/or the odor of lavender or chamomile may promote calming and lessen anxiety.
- Composure™, a product containing L-theanine, may promote calming in mildly fearful dogs.
- Zylkene® (alpha-casozepine) may have calming properties to help relax dogs with situational anxiety.