When exposed to certain noises, such as fireworks, a dog with a noise phobia may pant or salivate excessively, tremble, or run and hide from fear.
Fourth of July is not a holiday for noise phobic dogs. Dogs that are frightened of sounds may pant or salivate excessively, destroy property, tremble, soil the house, hide, or escape when they hear a noise that upsets them.
The fear-induced behavior may occur when your dog actually hears the fireworks but it may last well beyond the event. Some dogs not only fear the sound itself but avoid places where they heard the sound before or when they see a person or object associated with it. After a few nights of neighborhood fireworks, some very frightened dogs may no longer want to go out after dark.
Stephanie Borns-Weil, V07, head of the behavior service at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, provides insight into what owners can do to manage their dog’s fear of scary sounds that may be causing your dog problems.
Treatment of Noise Phobias
Noise phobia is not a training issue or an obedience problem. Noise sensitivity and phobias are medical conditions that are diagnosed and for which you may need to seek the help of a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.
Treatment options include environmental management to avoid or reduce the dog’s exposure to noise and behavior modification techniques such as desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization is done by exposing a dog to a frightening stimulus at an intensity that they can tolerate without fear and very gradually increasing the intensity. Counterconditioning changes a dog’s association from something negative to something positive by pairing the scary stimulus with some enjoyable treats. There are also some nutritional and pharmaceutical products that can be employed.
- Managing the Environment
If the noise occurs at home, it will help to create a safe space that is as protected as possible from frightening sounds. A finished basement or other room without windows works well. Alternatively, turn a room into a temporary sanctuary by hanging sound-absorbing curtains over the window and adding white noise and calming music. Be sure to introduce the safe room long before the noise event. And add special treats and toys so he looks forward to being there.
- Desensitization and Counterconditioning
This can be done using an audio recording of the sounds that the dog fears. There are tapes, records, CDs, and internet sites that mimic all sorts of noises, including exploding fireworks, car backfires, and even gunshots. You can initially start by playing the tape at full volume once to confirm that the simulated noise is what is actually frightening the dog. If it is, you start by turning the volume low enough that your dog will not react. Build positive associations with the noise by pairing it with petting, play and treats.
Once your dog is comfortable with that low volume, you may increase the volume incrementally over successive behavior modification sessions, as she adjusts to each increase. Continue to make associations by presenting her with yummy food treats when she is relaxed. Use very special treats and reserve them only for behavior modification. Your dog will set the pace for this process. If she is calm, you may increase the volume. If he starts to show anxiety, go back a few steps to a tolerable lower volume.
Desensitization will not be effective if your dog is exposed to the actual source of the frightening sound during this process. Therefore, all efforts should be made to avoid anything that will trigger the dog’s panic response.
Keep in mind that punishment is not appropriate for managing noise phobia as it will make the anxiety worse.
- Nutraceutical and Pharmaceutical Treatment
Some dogs may benefit from the use of nutritional supplements or medication as a part of their treatment. Anxitane (L-theonine) and 5-HTP tryptophan are amino acids that may be helpful in decreasing a dog’s anxiety, fear, and reactivity. Alternatively, antianxiety medications may be an appropriate part of a noise-phobic dog’s treatment. If your dog suffers from noise phobia, talk to your veterinarian about pharmacological options, including Sileo (dexmedetomidine oral gel) that is approved by the FDA for canine noise phobia.
Consult with an Animal Behavior Specialist
If you have made an effort to get your animal’s phobia under control and your dog is still running scared, you may find an animal behavior specialist to be helpful. These doctors of veterinary medicine have received an added year-long internship and 3 years of residency training in clinical animal behavioral medicine. A veterinary behaviorist can advise you how best to address your dog’s fear.
Pet owners can reach the Foster Hospital for Small Animals Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University at 508-839-5395 to make an appointment.