Does the rumble and crash of a thunderstorm send your dog scuttling under the bed? If so, you (and your dog) are not alone. Storms and other noises, such as fireworks, gunshots and smoke alarms can send many dogs into paroxysms of distress. And for some dogs, even more subtle sounds, such as a dishwasher, can be intensely upsetting.
Why does your dog react so strongly to noise? “It is a panic disorder,” says Dr. Terry Marie Curtis, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist at the University Of Florida College Of Veterinary Medicine. “And the physical effects of anxiety and stress shouldn’t be ignored.” In fact, chronic stress can compromise your dog's immune system and exacerbate many conditions, from gastrointestinal and skin disorders to behavioral problems.
A Welfare Issue
Dogs who react to noise can exhibit behaviors ranging from panting, pacing, trembling, drooling, whining and hiding to clingy appeals for attention. In extreme cases, dogs may desperately attempt to escape from or get into the house, chewing and scratching at doors and windows until they’ve injured themselves and damaged property.
Make no mistake: Dogs with noise phobias can be in serious distress. As such, punishment is never the answer. Punishing a terrified dog only adds another layer of fear and anxiety, which will most likely make the problem worse.
The best approach is to consult your veterinarian. He or she can help pinpoint the cause of the problem and suggest environmental changes or behavior modification techniques that can help your dog. In severe cases, medication may be needed.
Causes and Solutions
It’s not always easy to determine why a particular dog develops a noise anxiety. Still, according to Dr. Curtis, “anxiety and fear basically come from two places: knowledge of something bad happening or uncertainty.” The key is to teach your dog that the noise isn’t something bad or uncertain, but rather something positive, by pairing it with a treat or fun play. “For many dogs, this learning can’t occur until they are relaxed enough and that’s where medication can be very helpful," says Dr. Curtis.
“Every dog with storm anxiety is different,” adds Dr. Curtis, who notes that some can do well with simple therapies, while others often need a multi-pronged approach. Your veterinarian can recommend ways you can help your dog, including the following:
Avoid noise exposure when possible. If a storm is coming or there’s a good chance of fireworks in the neighborhood, bring your dog inside well ahead of time. Close the curtains or blinds to help dampen the sound. You can also play soothing music, such as CDs offered by Through a Dog’s Ear, which are designed to help reduce stress in dogs.
Create a safe place. Find a quiet room or large closet in the interior of the house, away from any windows. Place a comfortable dog bed in there and fill it with treats and toys or even feed your dog there so she associates positive things with the area. During fireworks or storms, consider playing soft music or creating white noise by turning on a fan. If your dog prefers the comfort of her crate, always leave the door open so she can escape if she's feeling stressed.
Promote calm. Your veterinarian can recommend products that may help relieve some of the stress. For example, there are pheromone sprays, collars and room diffusers that can help promote a calming effect in some dogs. For dogs with storm phobias, products like the Thundershirt and the Anxiety Wrap apply gentle pressure to help reduce fear, and the Storm Defender Cape may help decrease static electricity during storms. Be aware that these products do not work for all dogs, so talk to your veterinarian about recommendations. Some dogs also benefit from calming supplements.
Try desensitization and counter conditioning. Desensitization involves identifying the specific noises the dog is afraid of and exposing the dog to the noise, first at barely audible levels that don’t elicit a reaction. This must be combined with counter conditioning, or pairing a positive reward, such as treats, play or praise, with the noise. As the dog becomes more comfortable, the volume can be gradually increased until the noise has no significant effect on the dog. For example, you might play a recording of fireworks or thunder at a very low volume while giving your dog treats for remaining calm. This can be done for a few minutes each day, while very gradually increasing the volume over a period of weeks.
Helping your dog to overcome noise phobias takes time and patience. By working closely with your veterinarian you can help to alleviate some of your dog’s stress and anxiety, so she learns that noise isn't always something to fear.