Noise phobia in dogs

What is noise phobia?

A phobia is the irrational fear of something. The word phobia suggests that the fear response is out of proportion to the source of the fear. This certainly can be the case for dogs who are frightened by noises - noise phobia.

How and why does noise phobia develop?

Fear of noise is a normal response to a real threat. This results in behavioural responses that drive the dog to seek shelter or otherwise avoid the imminent threat which has been signalled by the noise. In the wild, if a dog hears a rustling in the bush nearby, it may well be a predator or hunter. The dog’s natural reaction will be to prepare to run or to fight. Either way the fear may help save the dog’s life. If, however, the fearful response to the noise is persistent, exaggerated in intensity and lasts a long time, this is not normal and is termed as noise phobia.

Case study

This real case scenario (names changed) illustrates how noise phobia can develop:

One morning Bella, a black Labrador was being walked by her owner along a footpath which ran alongside a playing field. Bella could hear the referees whistle and the shouts going on as the game of football was being played. Suddenly a ball came over the hedge and hit Bella on the head, causing her to be scared and startled. Her owner’s understandable reaction was to comfort and reassure her. Eventually, Bella calmed down and was able to continue with her walk.

The next day when Bella, on the same walk, came to the same spot, she was reluctant to go on. Again, her owner comforted and reassured her. This continued daily and the problem got worse. Things became more and more difficult for Bella’s owner. He became aware that he couldn’t even watch a game of football on the TV without her becoming excessively anxious and trying to hide away every time the crowds cheered, or the refs whistle was blown. What had happened was Bella had associated those sounds with the bang on the head, and an irrational and longstanding fear had developed.

One can see how this can easily happen and that inadvertently, the owner helped this sequence of events to develop. Dogs cannot understand language and therefore the reassuring voice being used, would have been misinterpreted as “praise for being fearful”.  This behaviour was repeated daily reinforcing Bella’s reaction. Eventually merely the sounds and not the walk or the ball were needed to provoke intense fear.

How can noise phobia be prevented?

In the above scenario, the following actions by the owner could have helped to stop the initial frightening incident turning into a phobia:

  • The owner should have ignored the incident once he knew Bella was not hurt
  • He should have walked on and waited for her to eventually follow, without any reassuring noises
  • When she eventually did, she should have been rewarded
  • If this procedure had been repeated daily, it is likely that Bella’s apprehension would have gradually diminished. Eventually resulting in her behaving normally.

It is essential to try to introduce young puppies to all sorts of noises in the first few weeks after they come home. Even if a pup is too young to walk outside because they are not fully vaccinated, they can still be carried and introduced to traffic and outside noise in a controlled and safe way. The more variety of sounds the puppy is exposed to at this early age, the more robust emotionally they are likely to grow up. They will then be less likely to develop phobias.

Treatment for noise phobia

Counter conditioning is a method used in behavioural therapy. This seeks to reward the dog for not reacting fearfully to the stimulus that would normally cause them to be frightened. So, in Bella’s case, she was exposed to tape recordings of very low volumes of crowds cheering and refs’ whistles. Each time she didn’t respond, she would get a reward in the form of food. Eventually over weeks of this therapy, her problem reduced. Contact your vet for further advice on this therapy >

There may be appropriate medications available from your vet that may support behavioural therapy in more severe cases. Make an appointment to speak with your vet for further details.

Fireworks

Fear of the bangs and other noises associated with bonfire night, is particularly common. The main reason for this is that unless you acquire your puppy around the beginning of November, most owners don’t think to prepare their new arrival for the very specific noise of fireworks. However, it is a really good idea for new owners to purchase a CD or download noises. They can then expose their puppy to these noises before the real thing. In this way, the volume can be low to start with and gradually turned up. Each time the puppy reacts favourably, they should be given a treat. In this way they will come to think fireworks are associated with something nice, not scary! Repeat the procedure daily for maximum success and only increase the volume very slowly!

For dogs that are already fearful it can be useful to carry out the above as a desensitisation programme well in advance of the seasonal fireworks.

For further advice on pets and fireworks >

Alongside behavioural therapy, pheromone products like Adaptil can be useful to support a relaxed and calming environment when trying to improve noise phobia problems.

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