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What to do if your dog is scared of loud noises

Understand why some dogs have noise fears

How common are noise fears in dogs?

Recent research suggests that fear of loud noises are very common in the dog population. In fact almost half of dog owners reported their dog reacted to loud noises by showing signs of fear or anxiety, such as trembling or hiding. More research is needed in this area, but these findings are pretty worrying for the welfare of our dogs – it means that potentially 5 million dogs in the UK are worried by noises they hear.

Which noises cause the greatest problem?

More owners report fears in response to fireworks than other noises, as might be expected. Fireworks are loud and bright, and from dogs’ point of view, they occur without any warning, and for no apparent reason! Other loud and unpredictable noises such as thunderstorms and gunshots were the next most frequent causes of fear reactions.

What do dogs do when they are scared?

Owners tend to seek help when their dog shows an extreme response to noises, or when this impacts on their lifestyle. Some dogs have responses which are quite difficult to cope with, such as pulling all the contents of a cupboard out and clambering inside, hiding under the bed, running from room to room, trembling, shaking or toileting. When dogs hear loud noises outside, they can run away from their owners in panic, potentially across roads or into other dangerous situations.

However, other dogs show much more subtle signs. In these cases, owners may not always recognise there is a problem. These include moving under the table or sofa, being very ‘clingy’ with owners, salivating or licking lips. These dogs may be just as stressed as those that do the dramatic stuff, so its equally important to recognise and treat their fear.

Prevention fear of noises in dogs

The aim of giving puppies experience of noises when they are young is to ensure that they perceive such noises are ‘normal’ and ‘unimportant’ to protect against the development of fear responses later in life. In order to achieve this, every puppy needs to be exposed to noises at such a volume that they don’t show signs of anxiety or fear. In this way, sounds become a normal part of each puppy’s experience. Before starting this program, you should make sure that you are familiar with behavioural signs of anxiety and fear in dogs.

It is important that puppies are not already anxious or fearful when they first hear noises, as this will increase the risk that they will associate the noises with a negative experience. It is therefore important to ensure that puppies are relaxed, or engaged in positive behaviours such as play, before they hear any noises. Noises need to be first presented at a low volume to ensure that your puppy shows no sign of anxiety. It is better to start at a very low volume, where noises are barely audible to the human ear, to ensure there is no negative response: you need to watch your puppy carefully when the noises are playing! He or she should continue playing or interacting as if nothing different has happened. If all is OK, the volume of the sound can be slightly increased next time. This process is repeated, with the volume of noises increased gradually over sessions, but each time checking that your puppy is always relaxed. Should he or she seem anxious during a session, the sound should be stopped immediately. Once the puppy is relaxed again, start to play the sound but at a lower volume, so that he or she is no longer reacting. When you next increase the volume again, make sure you increase the volume by a smaller amount.

Dog lying in a soft den  

Preparation

  • Its a good idea to plan how you will make sure your puppy gets to experience a range of household noises, such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, doorbells, telephones, radio or TV, and food mixers. In most homes, this will happen naturally, but if your puppy is outside, in a quiet area, or there are particular noises he or she is unlikely to experience, then it is a good idea to use good quality recordings of these noises. These are available through Dogs Trust ( ‘Sounds Sociable’ is a CD with a range of noises for puppies to learn about).
  • Think how you will make sure your puppy has a positive experience of sounds which don't happen in the home, like fireworks, gunshots, traffic and thunder. The best way to gradually introduce these is with good quality recordings ('Sounds Scary’ CD). Direct exposure of puppies to loud noises such as fireworks is not a good idea as this could result in them becoming scared.
  • Make sure your puppy is somewhere familiar before starting to play any noises
  • Have toys and food treats available before starting the recordings
  • Check you are familiar with signs of anxiety in your puppy, so you know if you are progressing too fast 

Household noises 

  • To make sure your puppy has the opportunity to get used to household noises, he or she will need to spend some time in parts of the house where you use normal household appliances. Remember that for each new experience, you need to build up slowly. For example, he or she can start by exploring a switched off vacuum cleaner. Once relaxed with this, you can maybe move the vacuum about, still switched off. But remember to check that puppy is not scared! The next stage may be for the vacuum to be turned on but immobile, and maybe in the next room if needed. The final stage will be the puppy confident with a turned on moving vacuum cleaner in the same room!
  • Remember to always check for signs of anxiety and fear. If you think he or she may be worried, the appliance should be turned off. When you start sessions again, make sure its at a stage before hitting a problem.

Outside noises

  • The noises which most often cause fears in adult dogs are fireworks, traffic, trains, aeroplanes, gunshots, hot air balloons and thunder. So trying to get your puppy used to these in a positive way will give him or her a great start in life.
  • Get hold of good quality recordings - you are looking for ones where sounds are available as separate elements (e.g. the ‘whizz’ and ‘bang’ of fireworks separately as well as together), and include the variations in types of noise which dogs are likely to encounter later in life (e.g. shotgun and rifle sounds).
  • Start with you puppy relaxed in a familiar environment. Have toys and treats ready, and if you have more than one puppy, enough people to keep them all occupied! 
  • Set up the recording in advance, so you are sure that it will play at a very low volume to start with. Also start by presenting the separate elements of complex sounds.
  • Get your puppy interested in playing before you start playing the noises
  • Watch your puppy very carefully as you start to play the noises at such a low volume that you can't hear it yourself. If you think he or she is worried, stop the sound immediately, but carry on playing until puppy is relaxed again. When you start again, have the volume set lower!
  • As long as your puppy carries on playing and ignores the sounds, you can increase the volume very gradually in the next session, but watch for worry again!
  • Keep repeating, each time building up the volume as long as your puppy is relaxed. 

Sound therapy for pets

See our sound therapy for pets information and download or listen to sound based treatment programmes developed by veterinary surgeons specialising in the field of pet behavioural therapy.

What to do

If your dog is worried by noises they hear, there are two things to consider: 

  • What to do NOW on fireworks night or during a thunderstorm!
  • What to do in the long term

Immediate things you can do

The key things to do if your dog is worried by noises are to:

1. Reduce the direct impact of the noises and flashes

You can make the environment less scary for your dog by trying to block out the sounds of the fireworks or other noises as much as possible. Shut windows and have your dog in the central part of the house as much as possible. You can also play music or have the TV on to drown out the noises outside. For fireworks or storms, you should also shut curtains to make sure that your dog cannot see the flashes of fireworks or lightening. Avoid taking your dog out when there might be a risk of fireworks – finish exercise in good time to be settled inside the house.

2. Stay calm yourself and don’t tell off your dog

It is important to stay calm yourself and follow your normal routine. If you do something different from usual, this is likely to worry your dog even more. For example, going backwards and forwards to the window to see what’s going on is likely to draw your dog’s attention to what is going on outside. Lots of people worry about how their dogs will react - but try to behave as normal with your dog. He or she won’t know that you are worried about them, and may well associate your odd behaviour with the noises going on outside!

Even if your dog dashes about or does something annoying, such as digging behind the sofa, don’t tell him or her off. He or she is behaving like this because they are scared, and it is counter-productive to get angry.

3. Help your dog find a coping response

You need to help your dog to find a way of coping with noises. The best way of doing this is providing him or her with a ‘den’. This can be any space that the dog can hide in that will give them a feeling of security. Ideally if should be as sound proofed as possible, and it is a good idea to make the space quite small for the dog so that he or she can just squeeze in. This could, for example, be a space in an under-stairs cupboard filled with lots of blankets and bedding that the dog can squash into. Alternatively, you can make an indoor kennel more ‘den-like’ by putting more blankets inside and covering it with thick blankets to deaden the sound.

 Ideally a den should be introduced to a dog before the fireworks event or storm so that he or she can learn that it is a good place. If you introduce it for the first time when your dog is frightened they may not use it - in which case don't try and force them to do so. It will be something to work on for the next occasion. If your dog does use the den, or goes to hide somewhere else, then it is better to not approach them or try and bring them out. They are doing what works best for them to cope with the noises, and approaching them can increase their anxiety, even resulting in aggression in some cases.

Many dogs seek reassurance from their owners when worried – this is their ‘strategy’ for coping with the loud noises. It has commonly been suggested in the past that dogs should be ignored if they are frightened – but we do not recommend this. If you suddenly withdraw reassurance when they are terrified by noises it is likely to cause them to be very distressed. In the long term it is better that your dog is not reliant on your attention when he or she is worried – but changing this is a long term aim as described below, not something to start when he or she is panicking!

Longer term treatment

If you identify signs that your dog may be worried, talk to your vet about referral to a behaviourist. It is important to contact your vet first so that he or she can check that there are no medical problems, and help you find a qualified behaviourist. Your vet will also be able to discuss with you whether medication might be helpful. Programmes of behaviour therapy recommended will vary for each dog, but may include the following elements: 

  1. Establishing a consistent way for your dog to cope when he or she hears noises. This often involves teaching him or her to seek out a den to hide when they are worried. This might need you to gradually change your dogs ‘coping’ response away from one that relies on your attention. It is not a good idea in the long term for your dog to rely on your attention to cope with noises, because he or she will be much more distressed if loud noises happen when you are not at home.
  2. Gradually teaching your dog that noises are not scary through a process called ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning’. This usually involves playing recorded versions of the scary noises, but starting at such a low volume that your dog is not scared. The volume and direction of sounds are changed over time, but so slowly that the dog does not show signs of fear. The sounds are also associated with something positive such as a treat or game.

Will my dog need medication?

Talk to your vet about whether your dog would benefit from medication. In some cases, it can be very beneficial in the short term to use medication when loud noises are expected. This is because treatment programmes, such as desensitisation and counter-conditioning, are difficult to progress with if your dog is intermittently exposed to very loud noises between training sessions. The benefit of the correct short term medications used for these occasions is that they can block memory

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