Unfortunately, fear of loud or unexpected noises is common in dogs. It’s well known that many dogs are scared of fireworks. It’s less well known that noise phobias can develop at any age, so don’t be surprised if your usually chilled out pup starts behaving strangely during fireworks. Let’s explore why dogs are scared of certain noises, and what you can do to help.
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What are noise phobias?
Phobias are classified (according to Oxford Reference online) as “a persistent, irrational fear of an object, event, activity, or situation called a phobic stimulus, resulting in a compelling desire to avoid it”. This means being scared of something that will not actually cause any harm, or which does not actually pose any threat. In other words, being scared of something you don’t need to be scared of. In this case, certain loud or sudden noises.
What noises are dogs scared of?
Dogs can develop phobias to any noises, especially ones they associate with a negative event. Many dogs are scared of fireworks. This isn’t surprising given the loud bangs, crackles and flashes of light. Dogs can also be scared of the noise of the hoover, thunderstorms, the cooker extraction fan, fire alarms and the noise of a hot air balloon, to name a few.
Why do dogs develop noise phobias?
Dogs can develop noise phobias for several reasons. Dogs have excellent hearing and can hear noises out of our audible range, so it’s not surprising that they would be more sensitive to noise than us. Noise phobias often develop to loud, unexpected noises. Remember, your dog doesn’t know it’s fireworks night so won’t be expecting the noise! Dogs are usually scared of noises which don’t happen often enough for them to become accustomed to the noise.
Lack of early socialisation, or lack of exposure to a wide range of noises as a puppy, can cause noise phobias to develop. Phobias of certain types of noises may also develop after a negative or scary experience. For example, dogs who have firework phobias may also then develop a phobia to the similar noise of a crackling fire.
Dogs may develop phobias as they age, or if they have underlying pain or a medical condition. These can cause all of the senses to be more reactive than usual.
Although we know fireworks won’t cause us any harm, of course dogs don’t realise this. When such noises begin, your dog’s ‘flight or fight’ reaction may well kick in. Of course there is nothing to fight, so they may try to flee. Although your dog can hide, they cannot escape the noise, so the fear increases.
What are the signs of a noise phobia?
So, how do you spot a noise phobia in your dog? Signs include pacing, panting, restlessness, drooling, lip licking, trembling, seeking excessive attention, toileting indoors or attempting to hide. Some dogs exhibit all of these behaviours, while others will show the signs more subtly.
How can I help my dog with a fear of loud noises?
Long-term, it’s important to help your dog become accustomed to the noises, and to change the association to a positive one. This will involve time and dedication on your part, but can be very effective. Helping your dog get used to the noises is called ‘desensitisation’. This involves using a CD or recording of the noises. Start with just a second of very low volume play, then very gradually increase the volume and length of exposure over time. Be sure to stop if your dog shows any signs of anxiety and dial it back. Changing the association to a positive one is called ‘counter-conditioning’, which involves using play or food while the noises are playing.
In the shorter term, here are some tips for coping with fireworks, or other noise phobias:
- Remember to be prepared well ahead of any firework season. This includes bonfire night, Halloween and New Year’s Eve.
- Create a safe space, or den, where your dog can hide and feel secure. Use toys and treats in the safe space and have your dog using it well in advance of bonfire night.
- Close all the windows, doors and curtains to block out the flashes and muffle the noise as much as possible.
- Have the TV or radio on as background noise, but not so loudly that this frightens your dog!
- Use distractions if your dog is keen, such as toys, games, or their favourite treats. Be guided by your dog and don’t try to force this if they aren’t showing interest.
- Keep your dog company. Ignore the noises yourself and try to stay calm. Reassure your dog without making a fuss.
- NEVER punish your dog for fearful behaviours such as scratching or scrambling, this will only make the anxiety worse.
- Consider using dog pheromone plug-ins, sprays, or collars.
If you are concerned about your dog, or you know they suffer from noise phobia, then speak with your vet. They will be able to offer advice, and in severe phobias anti-anxiety medication may help in the short-term.