Fear of Noises in Dogs

By Ellen Lindell, VDM, DACVB; Kenneth Martin, DVM, Diplomate, ACVB; Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

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 an estimated 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.

Fear can be normal and adaptive (e.g., startling and retreating from a loud clap of thunder). Phobias are exaggerated fear responses that are maladaptive (e.g., trembling in the bathtub for hours after a clap of thunder). Your dog’s recovery period from a noise gives an indication of whether the behavior is normal or harmful to your dog’s physical health and emotional well-being. Noise aversions frequently worsen when left untreated. A fear of one specific sound can generalize to a fear of other sounds, whether similar or different.

Some dogs may have an inherent sensitivity to noises (i.e., a genetic predisposition). However, experience 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. Fear might first be noticed early, while puppies are in their sensitive period for socialization (3 to 14 weeks of age). Profound fear in very young puppies may have a strong genetic component. The behavior and health of the mother dog can also contribute to early onset of fear. Young puppies should be social and friendly and should readily recover from a moderate fright without developing a permanent aversion.

"Profound fear in very young puppies may have a strong genetic component."

By about 14 weeks of age, puppies begin to lose some of their behavioral flexibility. During the pre-adolescent stage (14 weeks to 6 months of age), puppies are less behaviorally flexible and may lose their ability to recover fully from traumatic experiences. You might first notice that your dog is afraid of noises as she enters her adolescent stage at about 6 months of age. Of course, fear can develop in a dog at any age, particularly if there is a traumatic exposure to a trigger.

Medical conditions such as pain (i.e., ear infection or arthritis) can also contribute to noise sensitivity in dogs. Senior dogs (8 years and older) that develop a fear of noises should be examined by their veterinarian to screen for a medical condition. Also, senior dogs may experience partial hearing loss that can change their perception of sounds and contribute to a fear response.

What can I do to prevent a fear of sounds and what treatments might reduce fear and phobic reactions?

  • If possible, select a puppy or adult dog who is not shy and does not overtly display fearful behavior. Meeting a puppy’s parents can be very helpful, as there can be a genetic component to fear. It is also helpful to learn the temperament of the dog’s parents. Certain herding and working breeds may be predisposed to noise sensitivities.
  • Socialize puppies while they are young. Puppies are most sensitive to socialization before they reach 14 weeks of age. Gently expose them to a wide range of sounds, using food and play, to create a positive experience in the presence of noise.
  • Avoid exposure to traumatic experiences. While early and appropriate socialization is important for shaping a dog’s future behavior, socialization is not beneficial if exposures induce fear responses.
  • Learn to recognize your dog’s signs of fear. Your dog may freeze, pant, cower, attempt to escape, or refuse to go on a walk. Do not punish your dog when he is frightened. Try to remove him from the situation or remove the trigger. Punishment itself causes fear and is likely to increase the intensity of your dog’s fear response to noise.
  • If your dog appears frightened, it is fine to gently pet him or allow him to sit close to you. Remain calm yourself - don’t make a fuss. Your dog may become alarmed if you are excessively enthusiastic while he is worried. Also, excessive attention could teach your dog to search for you whenever he is worried, and that can become problematic if you are not available. 
  • Behavior modification utilizing classical conditioning can be used to encourage a positive emotional response to a sound that induces fear. Classical conditioning works well with low-level fears. This technique pairs a positive reinforcer (something that makes your dog feel happy, such as a food treat) with the scary sound. Over time, the sound itself can make your dog feel happy. That is, a your dog experiences a positive emotional response rather than a neutral or negative (fear) emotional response.
  • For moderate and high-level fear, it can be effective to use the behavior modification technique known as systematic desensitization and counterconditioning. This technique uses a gradual, controlled exposure to the noise, keeping the level of the sound low enough that there is no fear response. To begin, your dog must first be conditioned to relax on cue in the absence of the trigger. Then, while your dog is relaxing, a low level of the scary sound is introduced. This training should be done under the direction of a qualified animal behaviorist or a skilled positive reinforcement trainer to be sure that the exposure level is correct. 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®) are two examples. Medication can facilitate learning during behavior modification. Also, medication can be used to help your dog cope in situations where a scary sound cannot be controlled or avoided, such as during a thunderstorm.

Who should I contact if my dog is extremely fearful or phobic of sounds?

Dogs that experience extreme fear and/or phobic behaviors need professional intervention. They suffer emotionally and may harm themselves or property when they are distressed. Dogs with noise-based fears may also be at risk of developing other anxiety-based conditions, including distress related to being left alone.

If your dog experiences fear, first schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. They can check for underlying medical conditions that may cause or exacerbate your dog’s behavior. The veterinarian can also prescribe medication to give your dog relief. Since medication alone is not usually enough, your veterinarian may refer you to a qualified trainer who can help you with a behavior modification program. Alternatively, you may work directly with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist who can provide medication and behavior modification that will help you and your dog.

What can I do to help my pet be less afraid of noises?

  • Whenever possible, avoid or minimize exposure to the sounds that frighten your dog. Continued exposure without relief will likely increase his fear and anxiety.
  • Make environmental changes to decrease the perception of noises. For example, use white noise or turn on a noisy bathroom exhaust fan to muffle the sounds. 
  • Music therapy may promote calm and reduce the salience of sounds that trigger anxiety.
  • Use window blinds or shades to reduce exposure to visual stimuli (e.g., lightning or trees blowing in the wind) that precede and predict scary noises such as thunder. 
  • Offer your dog treats or a long-lasting food toy. Do not force your dog to take the food, as you can increase fear and even cause an aversion to treats. Fear shuts down appetite, so if your dog does not take food, it is a sign he is too afraid. If your dog’s fear is mild, then using treats and food can be therapeutic, as it can condition a positive emotion associated with the sound.
  • Create a haven where your dog can go when she is afraid. Treats given this location foster a positive association with the area. Practice when she is not frightened so that she feels snug and cozy in the location. For a fear of outside sounds such as thunder, use an interior room of the home, away from windows. If your dog can eat in the presence of the sound, then provide a food dispensing toy for her to enjoy while she stays in the safe area. 
  • Body wraps, such as a Thundershirt® or Anxiety Wrap®, may promote calm and lessen ambulatory behavior in dogs. A Storm Defender Cape™ may function as a body wrap and reduce static discharge associated with anxiety.
  • If properly introduced and accepted by the dog, a ThunderCap® may be used to lessen your dog’s visualization of stimuli that predict scary noises.
  • Thunderease® (dog appeasing pheromone) and/or the odor of lavender or chamomile may promote calm and lessen anxiety.
  • Composure™, a product containing L-theanine, may promote calm in mildly fearful dogs.
  • Zylkene® (alpha-casozepine) may help relax dogs with situational anxiety.
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