Fourth of July is a perfect example of a situation where a dog may exhibit fearful behaviors in response to a noise-related event. Some dogs 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, when he’s in places where he’s heard the sound previously, or when he sees an object or person who has been associated with a noise.
Stephanie Borns-Weil, V07, head of the behavior service at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, provides insight into what owners can do to reduce the intensity of frightening 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 includes behavior modification techniques such as desensitization, counter-conditioning, or a combination of both. These techniques involve eliminating or controlling the dog’s exposure to the stimulus. There are also some nutritional and pharmaceutical products that can be employed.
1. Desensitization to Sounds
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. Reward him with praise and treats for his calm behavior.
Once your dog is comfortable with that low volume, you may increase the volume incrementally over successive days, as he adjusts to each increase. Continue to reward him for relaxed behavior with yummy food treats that are only given during your desensitization exercises. Your dog will set the pace for this process. 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.
Counterconditioning—another approach often used in conjunction with desensitization—involves teaching a new behavior that is inconsistent with the undesirable behavior. For instance, when your dog is anxious, you would tell him to “lie down” in his “safe place.” During this time, provide your dog with something to do, for example, providing a long-lasting treat. This treat would only be given when your dog is in the safe place and responding to your “sit-stay” or “down” command.
Keep in mind that punishment with either behavior modification or counterconditioning is not appropriate for managing noise phobia as it will make the anxiety worse.
3. 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, medications such as SSRIs (Prozac, Zoloft, etc.) may be an appropriate part of a noise phobic dog’s treatment.
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 added and specialized training in the psychology of animals and can advise you on 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.