Does your dog flee to the bathtub every time the sky darkens with a summer storm? Or shake uncontrollably with every bang from fireworks on the fourth of July? If so, you’re not alone.
Noise phobia is a serious problem that can lead to a sharp decline in your pooch’s quality of life, especially if left untreated.
As a dog trainer, I worked with many dogs whose lives were dictated by a fear of certain sounds. While fireworks and thunder are common phobias, dogs can develop phobias to any sound they associate with pain or fear. One border collie I worked with would spin into a frenzy every time his owner closed the dishwasher or turned on the microwave.
Depending on the severity of the noise phobia, it may take weeks or even years to get your dog over their fears. But the worst thing you can do is wait to address the issue. If your pup suffers from noise phobia, it’s time to get to work.
If only helping your dog get over their noise phobia was as easy as putting on headphones. Luckily, with dedication and patience, you can help your dog overcome their fear.
What is Noise Phobia?
According to AKC Canine Health Foundation, noise phobia is “an irrational, intense and persistent fear” of certain sounds. The triggering sound could be anything from the sound of a vacuum cleaner, smoke alarm, or fireworks, to a phone ringing or a baby crying.
Thunder phobia is one of the most common forms of noise phobia in dogs. It is also one of the hardest to treat.
Some dogs that suffer from noise phobia may react with simple displays of anxiety. They may pant, yawn or get up and move out of the room. Dogs like this have a mild form of noise phobia and are more likely to respond positively to training therapy.
On the other hand, dogs who react intensely to a trigger sound may take much longer and need greater intervention to get over their fears. These dogs will often try to flee from the area when they hear the sound. They may hide in bathtubs, jump over tall fences or even try to dig through drywall to escape.
It’s important to understand that a true phobia is different than fear. Fear is the understandably anxious response to a literal and present threat. A phobia, on the other hand, is an over-the-top anxious reaction to a stimulus that does not pose an actual or immediate threat.
If your dog leaves the room when you dig through the spice cupboard because glass bottles often hit the floor when you do, they are exhibiting a normal fear. If your dog hides under the bed every time you start cooking, however, they have a phobia.
>>>Dogs can suffer from more than just noise phobias. Find out how to get your dog over a fear of water.
Why Do Dogs Develop Noise Phobias?
There are many factors that play into a dog developing a noise phobia.
Many breeds are genetically predisposed to reacting strongly to sounds. Herding dogs, like border collies, have been bred for centuries to be keen listeners with reactive, high energy temperaments. This combination can often lead to a dog that is more likely to develop a noise-centric phobia.
>>>If your dog can’t hear, they can’t fear sounds. Learn more about living with a deaf dog.
Dogs that were not exposed to new environments and situations as puppies might also be more likely to fear certain noises. At the same time, puppies who had a negative experience during a fear period may continue to show extreme reactions to that stimuli as they age.
Whatever the underlying cause, all noise phobias are born out of an incident of high anxiety. Many storm-phobic dogs go through an initial thunder-related trauma when the issue first arises. They may have been crated during a particularly bad storm, leading them to panic. Or they may have been near a lightning strike.
In other cases, a dog may have a negative association with a sound. If your dog sees you react angrily every time your work email notification goes off, they may develop and dislike for that tone. Over time, if they are a particularly anxious dog, this behavior could develop into an outright phobia.
Many common household items can become the focus of noise phobic dogs.
We see similar cases where dogs who are trained with a shock collar or invisible fence collar become fearful of beeping sounds. This is because these training collars often use a warning beep before the dog is shocked. As the shock is painful, this fear would be considered normal. However, the fear of beeping often extends beyond the use of the collar. Many of these types of dogs develop lasting phobias to fire alarms, microwaves, and electronics that make a similar noise.
>>>Learn about the right training tools to use to keep your dog happy and safe.
In some cases, you may never know why a phobia exists. My own dog recently started reacting negatively to the sound of text message alerts. This is especially odd considering my husband and I’s phones are almost always on silent.
How to Help Your Dog Overcome Their Noise Phobia
No matter the cause of your dog’s phobia, the protocol to help them overcome it is the same. What will differ is how much work you will need to put in. And what additional interventions you’ll use.
If you intervene on a noise phobia when it first begins, it will take much less time to correct. On the other hand, a phobia that has been getting worse for some time and possibly even extending to similar sounds will take many sessions before progress is made.
Regardless of how bad your dog’s phobia is, it’s important to prepare yourself to put the time in. Phobias of any kind take a while to reverse. And must be approached slowly. Working too fast can actually result in making the fear worse.
Ready to get started?
Keep an eye out for signs that your dog is becoming anxious or focusing too intently on any one noise. You will often notice their ears pinned, their irises get larger, and their lips and brow become tense. (https://pixabay.com/photos/scared-dog-looking-animal-pet-2640475/)
Step 1: Avoid Exposure to the Noise
This first step may seem counterintuitive. If you’re going to train your dog to get over a noise phobia, don’t they need to hear the sound? The answer is yes… While you are in training mode. But outside of training sessions you want to limit (or completely eliminate if possible) how often your dog hears the noise.
This is because each repeated exposure to the noise reinforces the anxious behavior. And worse still, if something negative happens after your dog hears the sound, the phobia can be intensified or generalized to other sounds or situations.
For instance, let’s say your dog is afraid of fireworks and it’s the Fourth of July. You drop a pan while making dinner while your dog is already shaking from the explosions outside. His overall fear of fireworks may now get worse or he may now start showing anxiety when you open the pan cupboard. Or both!
You may not be able to protect your dog completely from the noises they fear, but working hard to reduce their exposure during training will keep them from getting worse.
Some noises may be easier to avoid than others. If your dog is afraid of electronic beeps, set all devices to silent for the time being. If the sound of the dryer or vacuum sets them off, remove them from the area before you start these chores.
You won’t be able to fully avoid stimulants like thunderstorms. But you can reduce your dog’s exposure by locking them in a bathroom or crate with a fan or music on before the storm begins.
Step 2: Practice Relaxation Techniques
This is the second step because it is important to practice these before you begin training. Not only will it allow you to get your dog in a relaxed state before training, but it will also give you practice recognizing your dog’s body language.
You’ll need to familiarize yourself with common body language signs that show your dog is anxious in order to successfully counter condition fear behavior.
A dog that is sprawled out on their back, lips drooping, and tail limp is a relaxed dog. While a pup clinging to your side, yawning, sniffing the ground or stretching nervously, is not. Look for your dog’s tells while you practice some of these relaxation techniques.
A calm dog will have soft eyes, relaxed lips and ears, and slow breaths. Learn to recognize how your dog looks when they are relaxed so you know when you can continue training.
Doggy massage is a great way to help your dog calm down. Massage releases tension in the muscles and breeds an overall feeling of relaxation. Learn more about how to perform dog massage here.
Essential oils can also help your pooch chill out. Lavender, chamomile, and orange are great choices to help calm your dog’s mind and body. Use a diffuser to fill the air with these calming scents or rub a few drops on your hands before beginning massage. You can even mix a couple of drops with water and spritz the oils over your dog’s bed. Learn more about safely using essential oils with your dog here.
Fun training games may not seem like something that would relax your dog, but for the anxious mind, focus may be the only thing that calms them. Choose a game your dog knows and loves. If they know fun tricks like roll over and play dead, work through these commands and reward them with lots of praise and high-value treats. Even a low key game of fetch or treat toss can help release serotonin and calm your dog. Try these games in combination with massage or essential oils.
Step 3: Talk to Your Vet About Possible Drug and Supplement Therapies
Depending on your dog’s phobia severity, you may be able to skip this step. If your dog reacts with minimal anxiety to the sound, counterconditioning may be enough to help them. But for most dogs, additional help in the form of calming supplements or drugs may be essential.
Paying attention to simple stress cues like yawning, stretching, and nervously sniffing the ground can help you identify noise phobias before they become serious problems.
Noise phobias are one of the most difficult phobias to work with, and they’re all tough. Phobias directly affect the brain’s amygdala which is responsible for flight or fight behavior. That means the signal from the noise bypasses the rest of the “thinking brain” and goes straight to the reaction center. If your dog isn’t thinking about how they react then it makes training that much more difficult.
In Step 4 we’ll talk about how to reduce your dog’s anxiety to the point where they are able to think about what’s happening. But, for many dogs, it will be difficult to get their anxiety down without chemical help.
If your dog currently reacts to the noise with very intense behaviors like chewing through walls, aggression, urination, or defecation, then you likely need to discuss drug therapies with your vet. These extreme reactions demonstrate a high level of arousal that will be difficult to train through without help.
Even if your dog does not react that intensely, they may benefit from calming supplements meant to reduce anxiety. There are a number of great supplements on the market. I have personally had success with VetriScience Laboratories Composure chews and NutriVet Quiet Moments.
Both of these supplements work best when given daily for the extent of training. It is also helpful to give an additional does about a half hour before each training session begins.
There is also a lot of excitement lately around the use of melatonin for noise phobias. It seems to be especially useful when treating thunder phobia. Like the above supplements, melatonin works best when given daily with an additional dose before training exercises or storms. Talk to your vet about possibly using melatonin to help your dog. And read more about its benefits for noise phobic dogs here.
Step 4: Desensitize and Countercondition at Minimum Volume
Before beginning this step, go through a session of the relaxation technique you have been practicing with your dog. If you are using meds or supplements to help their anxiety use those as needed now.
Once your dog is calm, get a healthy supply of super-tasty treats like boiled chicken or soft training treats. Next, you’ll need a recording of the noise your dog is fearful of.
When you begin training, your dog should be calm but interested in the treats you’re using.
If your dog is afraid of a easily replicated noise like the microwave beep or the baby crying, use your phone to record a short snippet (one to two seconds) of the sound. For less frequent noises, like thunder, you may need to purchase a cd with pre-recorded sounds on it. Use your phone to record a short piece of the sound from the cd.
Set your recording to the lowest possible volume that is still audible. Keep in mind, your dog’s hearing is much better than yours. The lower, the better. With your relaxed dog sitting in front of you, play the sound recording. Your dog should not react with any form of anxiety. If your dog remains relaxed, feed them a small piece of the high-value treat and praise them. Repeat this step a dozen or so times.
If your dog reacts with anxiety (yawning, panting, moving away, not eating the treats) at any point in the exercise, it means the noise is too intense for them. If possible, turn the noise even lower. If that’s not an option,you may need someone else to help you. Have that person stand across the room and play the sound. If your dog still reacts negatively, they may need to move into the next room.
If your dog still reacts with anxiety, you may need the help of medication or a professional trainer. This is especially true if the reaction is intense like the dog leaving the room and refusing to come back.
Many dogs will react to noises they fear by hiding. If your dog runs away to hide during a training session, the volume of the sound stimulus you used was much too high.
Your goal is to be able to play the sound a few dozen times and feed treats without your dog reacting with anxiety. Ideally, by the thirtieth or fortieth repetition, your dog should look at you expectantly when they hear the noise. This is great! It means they are starting to associate the noise with the treats instead of something scary.
>>>Get more tips on helping your fearful dog.
Step 5: Increase Volume and Continue Desensitization
It is important to move at your dog’s pace through these steps. If your dog struggled with Step 4, stop your training session as soon as they start to show a positive reaction to the sound. Start the next training session at that same volume for the first ten or so repetitions. Once your dog is again reacting positively to the sound, then you can increase the volume.
If, on the other hand, your dog breezed through Step 4, then you can begin this step in the same training session. Turn up the volume of the noise just slightly. Play it and treat your dog as you did before.
Remember to use high value, extra-tasty treats during training. This will teach your dog that the sound they used to be scared of is actually an amazing thing because it means awesome food is on the way.
If at any point your dog shows signs of anxiety, turn the volume back down to the last successful level and treat until they are calm again. Increase the volume more slowly from that point.
Repeat playing the sound and treating your dog until they are expectantly looking your way each time the sound is played. Each time you get to this point, turn up the volume slightly.
Frequent, long training sessions appear to work better than short ones done often. Shoot for 30 minutes per session and one session per day. Most importantly, always end a session on a positive note. If your dog reacts negatively at any point, reduce the volume and work until they are calm and happily taking treats again before quitting.
>>>Have more training questions? Check out our list of recommended training books.
Step 6: Introduce Secondary Elements if Needed
Once you have worked with the recorded noise to the point that you can play it at full volume without your dog getting anxious, it is time to add secondary elements if needed.
So, what are “secondary elements?”
These are any cues related to the sound that makes your dog anxious. For instance, a thunder phobic dog may react anxiously if the sky gets dark, it starts to rain, and/or the pressure changes in the air. A dog fearful of fire alarms may react to the oven or stove top being used.
Some secondary elements will be easier to replicate than others.
For thunder phobic dogs, you may have to settle for scheduling training sessions during afternoons that are forecast for rain but not lightning. If your dog is fearful of the sound the dishwasher buttons make, you may need to counter condition the act of loading dishes, shutting the door and so on.
Training with your thunder phobic dog during a calm rainstorm is a great way to help them generalize the sound of thunder on your phone to an actual thunderstorm outside without the risk of scary, booming noises undoing all your training.
No matter how you approach the step of adding secondary elements, you always need to make sure to return the volume of your recorded noise back to a lower setting. Your goal is to slowly raise the volume back to full strength while including the secondary element in your counter-conditioning training. You will need to do this for each secondary element you add.
For instance, if your dog is afraid of the sound of the microwave, you would start by turning your recording of the microwave noise down to about where you started in the first place. Now, with your bowl of tasty treats and a relaxed dog, open and close the microwave door. Then play the recording and treat your dog.
As with Step 4, you want to repeat this action a few dozen times until your dog reacts only with happy anticipation for a treat. At that point, you can turn the volume up slightly and repeat the process. Continue to work with both elements until you can turn the volume all the way up without your dog reacting.
Step 7: Introduce the Real Thing and Continue to Nurture Your Dog
Once you have introduced all the secondary elements needed and gone through Step 6 with each of them, your dog should be ready for the real thing. Make sure you have your tasty treats ready and your dog is happy and relaxed. For our microwave fearful dog, we would simply take them over to the appliance and initiate the sound that they were fearful of. If they don’t react negatively to the sound, treat them.
Even after you’ve completed training for your dog’s phobia, it’s important to protect them from uncontrolled exposure to similar sounds. Any anxiety or pain they associate with the sound can cause the fear to return.
Continue initiating the real sound and treating a dozen or so times. If at any point your dog shows signs of anxiety, stop and return to your simulated noise training. You may need to add additional secondary elements to your protocol before returning to this step. Ask yourself: Was it the sound itself that my dog reacted to? Or did they start to get anxious on some pre-sound step that you didn’t practice, like placing a dish into the microwave?
For phobias that you are not able to replicate at will, like thunderstorms, the best you can do is be prepared for the next time the situation occurs. Get your treats ready and start working with your dog before and during the storm or other event. If your dog makes it through without exhibiting much anxiety, then you are well on your way to curing the phobia.
>>>Find out how to train away other problem behaviors.
Continue to nurture your dog through these situations. Be aware that a phobia can crop back up with little warning. Something as simple as slamming the microwave door too loud could undo all that hard work and send your dog panicking.
And keep in mind, just because your dog is no longer afraid of fireworks while safely in the house, does not mean you should take them to the next fireworks show in the park. Any fearful experience associated with an old phobia will cause that phobia to come back with a vengeance. Continue to take precautions like locking your dog in the bathroom with the fan on during bad storms or removing smoke alarms before baking.
>>>Need an easy way to contain your fearful dog during scary events? Find out the right way to crate train.
In the end, remember that you can only do so much to keep your dog from developing noise phobias. But being attentive and aware will allow you to catch many of these problems before they become serious. And taking the time to work with your dog at their speed is the best way you can help them overcome their fears.
Your dog will thank you for taking the time to work with them to overcome their noise phobia. Even if it takes a while and never truly goes away, they’ll be happier and calmer for it.