Question from Anji Bradley

I have got 2 staffies 1 is afraid to go out at night even on a lead. How can I help him.He stopped going out after he heard a car back-fire and he thought it was a firework.

Answer from Shanika Winters MRCVS, Online Vet

Hi Anji, thank you for your question about your dog’s fear of going out at night. What you are describing would fit with being a noise phobia.

What is a noise phobia?

Noise phobia is a fear response which is triggered when a particular sound is heard, in this case banging sounds similar to those produced by fireworks.  Dogs are intelligent animals and soon make associations to a stimulus, in this case the stimulus is a sound and the response associated with it is a reluctance to go out for walks in the night for fear of hearing the scary sound.

From what you have described I have assumed that your dog already was fearful of fireworks prior to hearing the car back-fire.  If this is the case then hopefully the following will be useful information.

How can I help my dog with his noise phobia?

In order to deal with a noise phobia you will need the help of your vet or someone trained in dog behaviour and plenty of patience.

Having personal experience of a noise phobic dog (my old border collie Jack who was frightened of fireworks and thunder storms) and having used a desensitisation program I can definitely recommend giving it a go.

So what is a desensitisation program?

The aim is to get your pet to stop showing a fear response to the stimulus in question using a controlled program of exposure to the scary stimulus plus or minus the use of behaviour modifying medications.

The desensitisation part is reducing the dog’s reaction, the controlled exposure to the sound is by use of recordings e.g. CD or MP3 and behaviour modifying medications include drugs similar to Valium (Diazepam) and antidepressants.

The recording of the scary sound is played at a time when an actual scary sound is unlikely to be heard, starting with very short exposure and at a very low volume. Gradually the length of exposure, frequency and volume are all increased, provided at the previous session the dog did not show a fear response. The aim is that eventually the dog can hear the scary sound without showing a fear response.

What are signs of fear and or distress in the dog?

Dogs all express fear in different ways but the following list includes many of the common signs; cowering, panting, excessive salivation, vocalising, hiding, jumping up and trying to run away.

What are the chances of success with a desensitisation program?

It is difficult to predict how well a dog will respond to noise phobia treatment, but unless the noise itself can be totally avoided then it is worth trying the treatment.  It is worth keeping in mind that the desensitisation program may need to be repeated to ensure that the fear response is kept under control. In the case of fire work phobia it is best to start the program at least 6 months away from peak firework season to allow plenty of time for it to take effect before the dog is exposed to the scary sound. This is because unexpected scary sounds exposure outside of the controls of the program can set your dog back to square one, so good timing can help ensure you and your dog’s best chance of successful treatment.

In conclusion phobias are a difficult thing to treat, but with patience and help, most animals will see a great improvement to their quality of life. I hope that you have found this answer helpful and good luck with treating your dog’s phobia.