Canine Noise Phobias: With a Bang, a Whimper
For most dogs, a loud noise is startling. However, for some, it can trigger an episode of complete panic. This type of response is known as a phobia: a maladaptive anxiety response that results in extremely fearful behavior.
Not all fearful reactions are phobic — for example, a dog that jumps back from a hissing cat may be wisely avoiding a scratch to the nose. A phobic response involves behavior that is out of proportion to the perceived threat.
The most common type of phobia in domestic canines is a noise phobia.
This may be to fireworks, gunshots, or any high-volume noise. One of the most common triggers is thunder, so storm phobia is considered a specific subset of a noise phobia. Storm phobic dogs often respond fearfully to barometric changes, wind, or rain that they associate with loud noises, before the thunder has even begun.
Dogs with noise or storm phobias typically respond in the same way to each stimuli, although the specific response may vary dog to dog. Mild signs of anxiety may include lip licking or yawning, and often progress to signs such as panting, pacing, or whining. Dogs which are normally housebroken may urinate or defecate in an inappropriate location.
They may seek additional attention, or appear significantly more reclusive. Some dogs will attempt to escape the stimulus by any means possible, including chewing on crate bars or battering on doors.
Typically, dogs with phobias are adults, not puppies. It takes time to become sensitized to a stimulus, which is why mature dogs are usually the ones affected. Certain breeds may be more likely to have high strung personalities, which can increase the risk for anxiety. However, any dog can be affected.
It is important to recognize that signs of a phobia can mimic other disease processes. Certain pathologic conditions, including canine cognitive dysfunction, or severe liver disease, can cause abnormal behavior and inappropriate responses. Pain can also mimic signs of anxiety. If you are concerned that your dog may be experiencing noise phobia, it is a good idea to check in with your veterinarian. They can not only guide treatment, but he or she can eliminate other causes of the behavior.
Some owners may wonder if it is worth the time and trouble to completely address a noise phobia. For some dogs, their behavior can put them at risk for serious injury, including getting injured attempting to escape a house or crate, or even running away and being struck by a vehicle.
Many phobic dogs may damage furniture or doors when they are anxious. However, even dogs which display reclusive behavior, rather than more dramatic signs, are experiencing significant mental distress. This can cause as much discomfort as physical pain. In addition, most phobias become worse with time if not addressed, so it is better to start treatment as soon as possible.
Several different avenues are available for treatment, and most pets will benefit from a combination of approaches. One of the most vital parts of treatment is behavioral therapy. Ideally, this should be guided by a veterinarian, a certified trainer, or a veterinary behaviorist (a veterinarian who has specialized in behavior issues).
While it can be tempting to try to comfort your pet when he or she is scared, this should be performed judiciously. Praising a frightened dog may make him confused, and uncertain what you are rewarding. Excited, high pitched talking may also make him more aroused and anxious. Ideally, you should stay calm and act as normally as possible during a stressful event.
Training should be performed at a time when the pet is calm, not in the middle of a phobic response.
The first type of behavioral therapy is called desensitization. This involves gradually adjusting the animal to a stimulus previously considered noxious. In the case of a noise phobia, this means repeated neutral exposures to a less intense version of the noise. It is usually accomplished with a recorded soundtrack, which should be played at a very low level initially. Desensitization must be performed carefully and cautiously, or it could cause worsening signs. The volume of the sound should never be increased if the dog is displaying any adverse or fearful behavior, even mild signs.
Counter conditioning is another approach, which is often started after desensitization therapy has been at least partially successful. This involves associating a previously negative stimuli with a positive outcome. Essentially, the dog should be rewarded with treats, play, or praise when he or she does not react adversely to the stimulus. This should also typically be started with a recording, and not begun with an actual stressful event.
In additional to training, environmental modification may be helpful for many dogs. Many pets will instinctively seek out a secluded, dark area, in which they feel less exposed. Especially if your pet seems calmer when hiding under a bed or a similar space, make sure that he or she has access to a safe space of your choosing.
For crate trained dogs, placing a thick blanket on top of the crate may make it a more secure den-like location. If a dog is not crate trained, they may respond poorly to being confined when anxious.
Other options include products such as the Thundershirt. This is a garment which provides gentle, constant physical pressure, similar to a firm hug. Many dogs respond favorably to this sensation. A Thundershirt usually works best if applied in advance of the stressful event, before the pet is excited.
Canine pheromones have also showed promise in calming anxious pets. There are several commercial products which contain synthetic versions of a compound called dog appeasing pheromone (DAP). Pheromones are naturally produced by many mammals to communicate, and lactating female dogs produce one to calm their puppies. This is what synthetic DAP is based on. DAP is available as a spray, diffuser, or a collar.
While the above options are often helpful, for severe cases, they are rarely sufficient. Many phobic dogs will benefit from pharmacologic therapy in combination with behavioral therapy and environmental modification.
There are several choices of medications for anxious dogs. Most phobic dogs will be prescribed a short acting medication to calm them down before a stressful event.
This could include a benzodiazepine, such as alprazolam, or even a new oral gel of a medication called dexmedetomidine (Sileo). These medications are most helpful if administered in advance of the stressor. For example, if a thunderstorm is predicted, or fireworks are scheduled, the medication should be given at least one to two hours prior to the start time. Dogs with chronic, severe anxiety may also benefit from daily long term medications, similar to anti-anxiety medications for humans.
Regardless of what choice is right for your pet, remember, there are options for treating noise phobias! Your pet does not need to spend every thunderstorm in terror, and you can clean their nervous drool from your arm. While there is no instantaneous fix for most behavior problems, there are many ways to make your pet (and you!) more comfortable.
Heath, S. (2007). Dealing with Sound Phobias. In World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings. Retrieved December 7, 2018, from https://www.vin.com
Overall, K. (2010, December 1). Noise reactivities and phobias in dogs: Behavior modification strategies. Retrieved December 7, 2018, from http://www.veterinarynews.dvm360.com