When should you worry about your dog’s reaction to sounds?
I adopted my beloved Labrador Retriever, Maverick, when he was 6 ½ months old. By 8 months, I noticed that he stopped and stared at loud sounds such as motorcycles. I knew him well enough after only 6 weeks together to know that if he was alerting to something, he was worried about it. Maverick’s tail wagged almost all of the time so when his tail stopped wagging, I paid attention. This seemingly small sign was a signal of something bigger brewing. Could fear of the sound of a motorcycle in an 8-month-old dog eventually morph into noise or storm phobia? Sure it could…and it often does.
About 50% of dogs will at some time in their life show an extreme fear of sounds, often called noise aversion or noise phobia. Some dogs also develop storm phobia. This happens when the dog associates the sound of thunder with lightning, rain, darkening of the sky, and even the changes in the barometric pressure. Eventually, those elements of the storm can elicit the same fear response as the thunder itself.
Most dogs start out with small signs like Maverick did. They might tremble, seek out the pet parent, or just alert to the sound. Those dogs are often ignored, but dogs who hurt themselves jumping out of a second-story window during trying to escape a scary sound (yep, I saw a dog that did this), get help. I wish that more pet parents recognized those small signs and sought help early before their dog was really suffering. For the dogs with moderate to severe noise and storm phobia, treatment often involves multiple medications, behavior modification, and environmental changes and can be lifelong.
When dogs with noise fear are recognized early and treated, the disorder can be arrested in that early stage, never progressing to something worse. I didn’t want Maverick to progress any further than where he was at 8 months so I committed to stopping the noise fear in its tracks.
Step one: Make it fun.
I used classical counterconditioning to treat Maverick’s mild fear. This method is easy to execute. Whenever Maverick reacted to any sound with anything less than an “I don’t care” attitude, I got very excited and handed him a treat (you could also use toys). I repeated this process every 1-2 seconds until Maverick no longer paid any attention to the sound. After only a week or two of working like this with him, I could see that his emotional state was starting to change. When he heard a motorcycle, he looked for just a second and then looked back at me like “where is my cheese?”
-Give the food (or play with your dog) for every sound to which he might react even if it is a mild reaction. It is better to have played or given your dog a tasty treat than to miss an opportunity to make it fun.
-Use very high-value food such as white meat chicken, baby food (no onions or garlic), canned dog food or low-fat hot dogs, or your dog’s very favorite toy.
Step two: Change your behavior
When I knew that there would be scary sounds such as storms or workers around the house, I turned the music up very loud and gave Maverick a food toy so that he would associate those scary things with good things. One of my previous dogs was ball crazy. We played ball through every storm.
-Note that I didn’t say for you to ignore your dog. You don’t have to ignore your dog for him to get better. If you want to pet him or hug him, it is OK. Just do it! However, if you really want to help your dog, that can’t be the ONLY thing that you do.
Step three: Stay in the safe bubble
I protected Maverick in situations where there wasn’t a problem yet, but there could be a problem later. For example, on the 4th of July, we put Maverick in his crate with the door open. We turned the music up and we gave him a couple of canned food stuffed frozen food toys. Even though he hadn’t had a reaction to fireworks yet, I wanted to make sure that he didn’t start.
-Don’t lock your dog in a crate or a room for that matter unless you feel very confident that he will not be distressed and try to break out. Locking phobic dogs in crates can result in severe injury.
Take a close look at your puppy. Are their times when he is stressed, even just a little? Now, in puppyhood is the time to act, not when he has chewed through your walls on the 4th of July.
If your dog is scared of sounds, see your veterinarian for help. You can find complete treatment plans for noise aversion at TheRealDogNerds.com.