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The treatment of ‘noise phobic’ dogs

01 October 2010, at 1:00am

FIONA WHELAN of The Company of Animals introduces a section on coping with the firework season

IT is estimated that more than 20% of theUK’sdogpopulationsufferfroma fear of loud noises, ranging from mild to severe.

With the ever increasing popularity of fireworks not just for Bonfire night but for many other celebrations throughout the year, this can be a real problem for owners and their pets to deal with. 

Dogs may develop an excessive fear or phobia towards virtually any noise but most commonly they are directedtowardsbangs (fireworks, gunshots or crow scarers), thunderstorms or traffic noise. If left untreated, affected animals often become hyper-sensitive and generalise their fear towards lesser sounds. Soon these dogs can become reactive to even minor bangs such as a door or window being closed.

It is well documented that a dog’s hearing is not only more sensitive than that of the average human but they are also able to hear a wider range of sounds, including both high and low frequency levels. Fear of loud or unexpected noises is triggered by the orienting response, the brain’s mechanism for being aware. 

When our dogs hear certain sounds, the brain instantly processes them to determine whether they might signal danger. Often these sounds are dismissed as “safe” if the dog has experienced them many times before or if he is able to link them with a visual stimulus. For example, the first time a puppy hears a car engine he may be fearful but after hearing and seeing cars on many occasions he will usually learn to tolerate them.

Dogs are also likely to be tolerant of sounds from a predictable source. The TV often broadcasts unusual or even disturbing sounds but for most dogs this is acceptable: they have learnt to accept the noises from household audio equipment and whilst they may not enjoy the exposure, they are more accepting to this than random sounds with no predictable source.

Frequent exposure to sounds, particularly from a young age, will usually desensitise the dog to that and similar noises. However, it is not unusual for dogs to develop noise phobias in later life either due to a negative experience or simply through lack of ongoing exposure. Don’t presume that if a puppy is accepting of fireworks the first time he hears them, that he will always be accepting!

For some dogs, noise phobia is so extreme it starts to affect their quality of life and that of their owners; it is not unusual for dogs to refuse to walk in particular locations or even leave the house at all. When left at home alone they may bark excessively and even become destructive. Inappropriate soiling in the house is also often caused by noise phobias: the pet is simply too fearful to use the garden for his normal toileting routine.

These behaviours rarely improve unaided and are more likely to get progressively worse. Unfortunately, it is not unheard of for owners to resort to euthanasia in extreme situations!

What you can do to help

Treatment of noise phobic dogs is usually a fairly straightforward procedure but does require patience and understanding. It is also a gradual process and is likely to take some weeks or months. This is not a procedure to start on 1st November!

  • The easiest way of effectively desensitising a dog is to use one of the widely available CLIX Noise & Sounds CDs.
  • Start by playing the CD at a low level (you may not be able to hear it at all) whilst the dog is relaxed or engaged in some enjoyable activity. If the dog reacts negatively to the CD, you are playing it too loudly.
  • Repeat the playing of the CD as frequently as possible; remember the dog needs to perceive this noise as completely normal and commonplace.
  • Gradually start to increase the volume as the dog’s tolerance improves. If at any time he shows a negative reaction, go back to the previous acceptable level.
  • Play the CD in as many locations as possible; different rooms, the car, friend’s houses or with the use of a portable system on walks. By putting speakers outside of the window, it is possible to go some way towards recreating the effect of real situations, rather than from a predictable source.
  • It may take several weeks or even months before the dog is completely tolerant of the CD. n Consider the quality of the equipment that you are playing the CD on; the better the quality of the CD player, the more realistic and thus more effective the desensitisation process will be.

The use of classical conditioning can be extremely effective when dealing with noise phobic pets. Rather than using verbal cues or “commands” to reach the dog’s conscious mind, we “associate” pleasant, happy times (which for dogs may be high-value food treats, toys or simply attention) to create a positive emotional response to that particular situation.

  • Whilst using the CD, try to time the increase in volume with meal or walk times or the arrival home of a family member.
  • Games can be a great way to create a positive association with unusual sounds; bang a ball against walls/doors during playtime; similarly, build towers from plant pots, empty drink tins and tea trays, etc., and crash a ball into them during games. As the dog’s tolerance increases, increase the level of noise.

Give the dog a “safe” place to escape to if he is feeling worried. A crate is perfect and draping a blanket over the crate may help him to feel more secure. No one should attempt to force the dog out of his crate; if he chooses to go there, he should be left alone.

Similarly, allowing the dog access to an area of the house which is deemed to be “high value” can be beneficial and allow him to gain comfort as well as retreat. Owners’ bedrooms often fit this category.

Often owners of noise phobic dogs unwittingly fuel their dog’s nervous behaviour by comforting or reassuring him. Dogs are unlikely to understand reassurance and are more likely to perceive this as approval of their nervous behaviour.

Avoid sympathy

Owners need to take on a “jolly hockey sticks”-type attitude during stressful situations. Allow your pet to gain comfort by being with you but without receiving sympathy.

Likewise, subjecting an obviously frightened dog to more stimuli is counter- productive, dogs do not “learn” or process information well when they are overly stressed.

As bizarre as this may sound, many long-eared dogs can be trained to accept wearing some simple ear plugs to act as a barrier against some of the noise! The easiest way is to use one leg of ladies’ tights or stockings with the toe cut out. This can then be doubled back and forth over the head to comfortably hold the ears against the head. This procedure, unfortunately, is not normally acceptable for dogs with pricked ears.

DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) is now readily available in diffuser, pump spray or even collar form. These may help the dog feel more secure and less anxious during both training and the whole firework season. If using a diffuser, plug it in near the dog’s “safe” place.

Homoeopathic and herbal remedies, for example “Anxiety”, are another popular and safe aid in treating any anxiety-related problem. Natural ingredients such as chamomile, valerian and borax have all been shown to be effective in helping to maintain calm.

“Anxiety Wraps” are a type of elasticated jacket that have been specifically designed to apply pressure to key points on the dog’s body (similar to acupuncture) helping to calm distressed dogs.

TTouch is a unique form of massage based on circular movements of the fingers and hands all over the body: the intentistoactivatethefunctionofcells and awaken cellular intelligence. As well as being used for injured animals, TTouch practitioners often have success with fearful and phobic pets.

A combination therapy of behaviour modification and anti-anxiety drugs may be necessary for extreme cases of noise phobia. Although some traditionally-used sedatives are now contra-indicated in the treatment of noise phobias, there are still any number of medications available.

Pharmacological therapy will vary according to the severity of the problem, the medical history of the patient and the personal opinions of the prescribing veterinary surgeon and/or consulting behaviourist.