Frightful Noises

Noise Fears in Dogs

Mother Nature is not all that motherly sometimes. In fact, if you were to ask your dog what it thought of the way the Grand Mother handles storms, the results, in doggy language at least, may not be printable.

Many dogs are tragically fearful of storms, especially those that incorporate thunder and lightning. Fears can also develop in response to other noises such as fireworks, cap guns and whips and for those that live close to rifle ranges, gun shots are a problem.

When scared by noises, dogs will often do all they can to get comfort or to escape the storm. They will seek to come inside the house with you if you are home and your comfort will often be all they need, but what if the dog is left alone during a storm? Such dogs are at grave risk. I have seen many dogs meet an untimely end as they run in panic during a thunder storm.

Even if your dog does not attempt to escape, you may find its fear of storms very difficult to control but there are answers.

Progressive desensitisation

The best answer to a dog's phobia of noises and storms is a process of progressive desensitisation. Here, a dog's fear of noises is reduced and replaced with tranquil, accepting, even joyful, behaviour. It is not an easy process though, and sometimes it won't work, but it is certainly worth a good try.

For this, you need a 'controllable' noise, where the volume of the noise can be reduced or increased as needed. For fears of explosions, devious accessories such as cap guns and exploding balloons can be used.

Desensitisation to storms

There is a limit to how closely a recorded storm mimics the real thing. This is because a storm has four components - the sound of the thunder and rain, the sight of the lightning, the smell of the rain or sulphur and the tactile sensations of the vibrations and atmospheric changes. Recordings at best can only produce the sound and some of the vibrations.

A recording of a thunderstorm is used as the engine to drive the dog's behaviour.

Play the recording back at full volume with the dog near to ensure the recording induces the same degree of fear as a real storm. If this is not so, then another solution needs to be found. The better your sound equipment the more likely you are to have effect. Specifically, sub-woofer speakers are essential.

If the recording induces as much trembling and anxiety as the real thing, then you can proceed.

The first step has nothing to do with the recording. All you need to do is to establish a new routine for your dog in which you train it to be happy and content about being in front of your stereo. The process used is one of conditioning and is similar to the famous research of Pavlov who rang a bell and gave a dog food simultaneously. Eventually the dog would salivate when the bell was rung, even if no food was present. For a thunder phobia, the bell is replaced with a mat placed in front of your stereo.

Bring your dog to the mat. Command it to do a simple task such as to 'SIT' or to lie 'DOWN'. If your dog responds, wait for five seconds and if it is then still in control, feed it tid bits of tasty food such as Liver Treats or Kabana.

Ham up the praise by squeaking and squawking at your dog to ensure it is happy. Rub its chest and give it pats. Make its tail wag enthusiastically.

Repeat this SIT/DOWN/PRAISE approximately five times, twice daily for five days. After this time, your dog will look forward to its special time on the mat, in front of your stereo.

Now turn on the recorded storm, but at a very low volume. Continue the 'Jolly Routine' with chest rubs and back scratches with the storm at this low volume. If your dog accepts this level of noise then gradually increase the volume over successive days. Eventually the dog will tolerate a full volume, canned storm.

Desensitisation to cap guns and similar noises

For noises like cap guns, it is easier to use the real thing, rather than a recording. Balloons, and especially water bomb balloons inflated with air, make similar noises to explosions.

To reduce the noise, have an assistant in a far away room with several walls between your assistant and yourself. Signal to him or her when you are ready for an explosion but before you do this ensure you have your dog's attention by giving it a command. The 'Leave' command is a good one to use.

If your dog retains control during the explosion, praise it as before.

To move forward from here, your assistant should gradually come closer, every two to four days, as your dog retains its calmness.

Ensure your dog is safe

Another vitally important matter is to ensure your dog’s safety during a storm. Don’t treat a dog’s fear of storms lightly. If you are leaving your dog and a storm is likely, you are better confining your dog to a secure room from which it cannot escape. The process used to do this is called the 'Denning Principle'.

What to do during a storm

What can you do when your dog is scared in the middle of a storm? The most important matter is to ensure that you are not compounding its fear. Don't try to comfort the dog by patting it or cuddling it. This only serves to teach the dog that fear is the behaviour you expect in a storm.

The behaviour you want is rationale, sensible, calm behaviour. Achieve this by moving the dog from the emotional 'right side' of its brain to the logical 'left side'.

This is done with the 'Pace and Praise' technique.

Place your dog on a lead and start to pace or move about quickly. Encourage your dog to 'HEEL' with you. Give it some firm commands such as 'SIT' or 'DOWN' and 'tick' your dog's correct response with immediate praise. Keep working with the dog until you can see that it is starting to respond and that it is focusing more on you than on the storm. As it comes back into order, start leaving more space between the command and the 'tick' of praise that follows. It is unlikely that your paranoid pooch will be totally calm, but at least this technique should make it controllable.

Recommence the Pace and Praise technique if your dog again goes 'furry around the edges'.

Medication for noise fears

With noise fears, the sensible use of anti-anxiety medication is often a good idea, and is often essential to stop a dog injuring itself.

For further information, contact your veterinary surgeon. Remember that noise fears are serious - keep your dog safe during a storm or fireworks evening at all costs.

By Dr Cam Day BVSc - Last updated 4 June 2014

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