Rule Out Medical Problems First
Any medical condition can trigger or worsen fearful behavior, particularly if the medical condition is new. Please see your veterinarian to rule out a possible medical problem if your dog has recently started acting fearfully.
What to Do If Your Dog Is Afraid of Noises
Like people, dogs can show fear under many circumstances, and their fear can be slight or extreme. Phobias are intense fear reactions that interfere with normal functioning and are experienced in response to some specific thing or situation. A dog is considered to have a noise fear or phobia when he shows fearful behaviors specifically in reaction to a noise-related event, regardless of whether he actually hears a noise, whether he reacts because he finds himself in a place where he’s heard a noise that frightened him in the past, or whether he sees some object or person that he associates with a scary noise. In addition to displaying fearful behavior, some dogs also cling to their owners, destroy property, soil the house or injure themselves when they hear a noise that upsets them. Frantic attempts to escape may cause dogs to chew, scratch, dig and even jump out of windows.
It’s not known how common noise fear and phobia is in dogs. Males and females are equally likely to develop the problem. Fear of noises does not usually develop until a dog is at least one year of age. Most of the sounds that dogs fear are sudden, loud noises like thunder, firecrackers and gunfire. However, dogs can develop fear of various other sounds, such as sirens, musical instruments, television sounds, fly swatters, lawn mowers, construction noises, road noises while traveling in a car, and the wind.
A study that compared fearful and unfearful dogs found that when they listened to a recording of thunder, both types of dogs turned toward the sound at first. Unfearful dogs habituated (got used to the sound) and stopped paying attention to the recording after hearing the thunder a few times. In contrast, fearful dogs didn’t habituate and became increasingly fearful as the recording continued. Fearful dogs usually don’t become less afraid with repeated exposure to a sound but instead become more fearful with each exposure. Noise sensitivities also generalize readily to other similar sounds. For example, a dog who’s afraid of the sound of doors slamming can quickly come to fear the sound of wind and other storm noises. The dog might also become frightened at the sight of a door left ajar. Dogs who develop a fear of thunder often generalize to fearing rain, wind, darkening skies and flashes of lightning.
In some cases, management (avoiding or preventing the problem) may be the best option when dealing with noise phobias. For example, a dog who was treated by the ASPCA Animal Behavior Center experts for other problems would also become nervous and leave the room any time he heard a fly-buzzing around. This fear developed because he was frightened by the sound of the fly swatter. As a management technique, the owner banned fly swatters in her house for several years, but the dog still associated the sound of flies with the swatting and remained fearful of the sound of flies. His fear was unsettling but not so devastating that it affected his overall quality of life, so his owner never attempted to eliminate his fear.
Treatment that can help:
The goal of treatment is to reduce the fear caused by a noise through behavior modification (a kind of retraining), medication or a combination of the two. The behavioral treatment for noise fear, like other fears, is called systematic desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC). (Please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, for detailed information about this treatment.) Desensitization works best if done during several sessions a week—daily, if possible. Longer sessions (about 20 minutes) are more effective than shorter sessions. Moderate fears and phobias can usually be successfully resolved within a few weeks to a few months. Severe phobias can be highly resistant to behavior modification alone, but in combination with medication, even these have the possibility of considerable improvement. Desensitization and counterconditioning are complex and can be tricky to carry out. Fear must be avoided or the procedure will backfire and the dog will get more frightened. Because treatment must progress and change according to the dog’s reactions, and because these reactions can be difficult to read and interpret, desensitization and counterconditioning require the guidance of a trained and experienced professional. We recommend seeking help from a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or Associate CAAB) or a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior (Dip ACVB) in your area. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate one of these professionals, who can guide you through designing and carrying out a desensitization and counterconditioning plan. If you can’t find a behaviorist near you, you can choose to hire a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) instead. However, be sure to find out whether he or she has professional education and extensive experience successfully treating fear and anxiety problems through the use of desensitization and counterconditioning. This kind of expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification, so it’s important to make sure that the CPDT you employ is qualified to help you.
During treatment, the sound you use must be controllable so that you can present it to your dog at a low enough volume that it doesn’t scare him. Usually a recording of the feared sound, such as a thunderstorm, is used. Some dogs will show the same reaction to recordings as they do to the real thing. Other dogs won’t react to recordings at all, which unfortunately means that recordings can’t be used in treatment. The reaction that you are looking for is one that shows you that the dog is aroused and a little attentive, but not frightened. Keeping the volume relatively low can help you accomplish this, provided that your dog accepts the recording as the real sound. The better the quality of the recording and the sound system, the more likely it is that the dog will respond. Sounds like gunshot and doors slamming can easily be replicated, but great care must be taken that the noise you create for treatment is not itself frightening to your dog. You must protect him from experiencing a fearful or phobic response by keeping the treatment predictable and as pleasant as possible.
Sample Steps in a Treatment Plan for Thunderstorm Phobia:
It is never advisable to conduct treatment for thunder phobia during thunderstorm season. If your dog’s response is extreme, it’s best to sedate him during storms until the season has passed and then initiate treatment.
- First test your dog’s reaction to the recording by playing it at a noticeable but not frightening volume. Observe your dog for signs of anxiety: pacing, panting, salivating, whining, trembling or escaping. If your dog shows any of these signs, the recording is effective in simulating a real storm for your dog. Stop the recording and proceed with treatment sessions. If your dog does not show anxious behavior and ignores the recording, your dog likely responds to other weather changes that occur before and during storms. It may work to cover the windows, turn on a strobe light to simulate lightning, and direct a water hose at the windows or roof. If this still does not effectively mimic a storm for your dog, he’s unlikely to benefit from this type of treatment. You might need to turn to the use of medication alone as a means for managing your dog’s thunderstorm fear. (Please see Medication, below, for more information.)
- Always play the recording at a volume level that’s below what it would take to evoke anxiety or fear in your dog. Identify the volume level at which he can relax while listening to the recording. Encourage him to lie down in a comfortable place. If your dog typically tries to hide in a closet or under a bed during storms, you should conduct your treatment sessions in the same or a similar place. If your dog prefers to hide in the bathroom or digs in the bathtub during storms, conduct your sessions with your dog lying next to the toilet.
- Begin treatments by offering your dog something tasty to chew or lick, such as a hollow bone or KONG® stuffed with peanut butter or Cheez Whiz®. (To learn more about the KONG and how to use one, please see our article, How to Stuff a KONG Toy.) Sit with your dog and, after each clap of thunder on the recording, say “Oh, what was that?” in a happy tone of voice and feed him especially tasty treats. (Use something special, like small bits of chicken, cheese or hotdog.) You may want to gently pet your dog to help him relax. After 5 to 10 minutes, increase the volume slightly.
- If your dog appears mildly fearful after you increase the volume, you can (a) turn the volume back to the previous level and continue at that level for another 5 to 10 minutes before trying again, or (b) wait to see if he habituates to the increased volume within a few minutes. Often dogs will settle in and resume licking the bone or KONG. Wait longer before increasing the volume again (15 to 20 minutes). If your dog doesn’t habituate after a few minutes, turn the volume back down.
- Please be aware that the most common mistake people make is playing the recording too loud, turning the volume up too much at each step, or advancing too quickly. Watch your dog carefully for signs of anxiety. It’s important to ensure that he’s relaxed during the treatment sessions. Err on the conservative side, especially during the first three to four sessions. Position speakers in new locations with each session so that your dog doesn’t habituate to the sounds of thunder coming from only one or two places. Also vary the recording so your dog doesn’t simply learn that there’s one specific recording of thunder that’s not threatening.
- Continue treatment sessions until your dog seems relaxed during very loud thunderstorm recordings.
- Once your dog can remain calm during a very loud recording of thunder in the treatment area, begin treatment in other areas of your house. Always start with the recording at a low level when you begin treatment in a new location. Your dog will likely accept the sound sooner than he did during the initial treatment, so you’ll probably be able to increase the volume relatively rapidly. However, always begin with the volume low and proceed as slowly as necessary to keep your dog feeling calm.
- It can also help to play the recording at a low volume during your dog’s favorite activities, such as dinnertime and playtime. Make sure you turn the recording off just as your dog finishes eating or tires of playing.
- As storm season approaches, watch for reports of storms. Plan so that you start a treatment session before the storm starts brewing. By the time the storm hits, you and your dog should be in the midst of listening to the recording at loud volume. Treatment should proceed as normal—but now the real storm and the recorded storm will be intermixing. If all goes well, your dog will continue to relax and act as though you’re just experiencing a slightly different recording. If your dog doesn’t readily generalize to the real storm, you might need to consider giving your dog medication for additional help.
- Whenever a real storm hits, encourage your dog to behave in the same manner as he does during your treatment sessions. Take him to the same place, stroke him gently, give him a stuffed bone or KONG and give him tasty treats after each clap of thunder.
- When you’re done with this entire treatment, and your dog seems to have overcome his fear of thunderstorms, do maintenance sessions every two to three weeks to prevent the fear from returning. Start these maintenance sessions somewhere at mid-volume, and if your dog handles that calmly, gradually increase the volume during a single session to the highest level you used previously.
Some dogs respond better to play than to treats. If you have a dog who enjoys play, you can try conditioning him to expect an exciting game of fetch or tug after each clap of thunder (recorded or real). In fact, some dogs can be prevented from developing a fearful response to thunder if you immediately, upon seeing the first signs of anxiety in a dog, get him very excited after each thunder clap. If your dog likes to bark, encourage him to bark at the thunder. This technique will not result in a dog who’s relaxed during storms. Instead, he will get excited and hyped up. But it should ward off the development of a fearful or phobic reaction.
Treatment for Fear of High-Pitched Noises:
Some dogs respond fearfully to high-pitched sounds, such as sirens, musical instruments, vacuum cleaners and crying babies. Whether you can attempt treatment for this kind of fear depends on whether you can reproduce the sound that frightens your dog reliably, either by producing it yourself (at controllable volumes) or playing a recording of the sound. You can mimic volume control by sounding a siren, musical instrument or vacuum in another room, underneath a pile of blankets or inside a stack of boxes. Baby cries will have to be simulated with recordings. If you’re using a recording, make sure your dog reacts to it as though it was the real thing. Follow the same steps outlined above for thunderstorm phobia, replacing the sounds of thunder with the sound your dog fears. While you are treating your dog, it’s critical that your dog is protected from experiencing the noise he fears at full intensity. Keep him away from children, refrain from playing your musical instrument or take your dog for a walk while someone else vacuums. Exposure to sirens is impossible to control, so you might need to consider medication to protect your dog from the effects of the full-intensity sound.
Treatment for Fear of Wind Noises:
A fear of wind noises often develops out of thunder fear or phobia. Dogs can learn that storms often involve high winds, and so they come to fear all related noises. Other dogs develop a fear of wind noises after hearing, or even being caught in, a door slamming shut. Related sounds might quickly become scary as well, such as leaves rustling, fans, ceiling fans or windows being opened. For example, a dog who fears thunder and wind noises might also become terrified at the sight of the front door ajar, even on a balmy day, because it has blown shut in the past. Dogs who fear wind and door-related noises often try to escape from their houses when frightened.
- Try to prevent your doors and windows from making noise or opening or closing on their own. Use rope to tie doors open or deadbolts to ensure that they stay closed. Use a prop to keep windows open. Replace squeaky or poorly fitted doors and windows. If possible, refrain from using fans or ceiling fans.
- Take precautions to make sure your dog is unable to escape from your house or yard when he’s frightened. Crating your dog might not be advisable because a frightened dog can panic and possibly injure himself. Confinement may be necessary, but if your dog is likely to panic in his attempts to escape, you should consider sedating him with medication as well.
- Wind noises are impossible to control or mimic. You can attempt counterconditioning exercises (without desensitization), which means you’ll need to rely primarily on associating real wind sounds with experiences your dog enjoys, such as eating tasty treats, enjoying a massage and playing fun games. If your dog’s fear is significant, counterconditioning alone probably won’t be effective and you’ll need to use medication.
- Treating your dog for a fear of fans or ceiling fans is easier than treating him for fear of wind or thunder! Have a helper turn on the fan, at low speed, for a few seconds. Get your dog excited, feed tasty treats, or play a fun game of fetch or tug for those seconds. Stop feeding or playing as soon as your helper turns the fan off. Wait a few minutes, and while you do, ignore your dog. Then repeat the sequence with another few seconds of fan-plus-reward. Make sure the fan is only on for seconds at a time at first, but the break you take in between these little sessions should be several minutes long. If your dog isn’t willing to eat treats or play while the fan is on, keep trying a few more times. If your dog is still too frightened, move to an adjacent room. When your helper turns on the fan, your dog can still hear the noise but he may be able to eat or play there because the sound is further away. As your dog becomes comfortable over a period of days, gradually move closer and closer each session, or every couple of sessions, to the door leading into the room with the fan. Try to gradually work your way into the same room while maintaining your dog’s comfort level. Once your dog is happy to eat treats or play games while the fan is on in the same room, gradually lengthen the amount of time you leave the fan on, from the few seconds you started out with to several minutes. Remember to take long breaks between each of the periods when you turn on the fan. For example, if you leave the fan on for four minutes, make sure you take a break of at least five minutes before turning it on again.
- If your dog is afraid of doors and windows moving, have a helper stand by a window or door and move it ever so slightly while you feed or play with your dog for a few seconds. Some dogs will only become frightened if a door appears to move by itself. If that’s the case for your dog, have your helper tie a string or rope to the door so that he or she doesn’t have to touch the door to move it. Take a break for a minute or so, and then have the helper move the door again while you play or feed. Continue gradually increasing the amount or speed of moving the door or window over a period of days and many treatment sessions. You can also start closing the door, very gently at first, but eventually with increasing force.
Treatment for Fear of Traffic Noises:
Dogs who aren’t unaccustomed to walking on bustling city streets can develop an intense fear of traffic noises if they suddenly move to a large city. Other dogs may suddenly develop a fear after a frightening experience, such as a car backfiring or a traffic accident. Fear of traffic noises can be a debilitating condition because a dog may be so frightened that walks are out of the question. Some dogs will never get over this kind of fear, and the kindest compromise might be to allow your dog to exercise in the backyard and socialize with friends at home instead of taking him on walks.
- If your dog is fine at the park but can’t cope with the traffic noises on the walk to the park, you can drive your dog to the park for his daily exercise and socialization.
- If your dog shows mild anxiety at the sound of traffic noises from inside your home, open the windows so he can hear the sounds while he is engaged in pleasurable activities, like eating, cuddling and playing.
- Spend time each day hanging out with your dog in an area where he can hear traffic noises but isn’t unduly upset by them. This might mean sitting on your front doorstep, or it might mean standing on a side street near a busy area. Encourage your dog to get excited, feed him very tasty treats, or engage him in a fun game of fetch or tug. After 20 to 30 seconds, step back inside or turn and walk away from the busy area. At the same time that you step inside or walk away, stop interacting with your dog and put any goodies you have away. Just ignore your dog for two minutes or so. Then come back outside or turn and walk back toward the busy area, once again treating or playing with your dog. Repeat the sequence over and over, and if your dog is doing well, increase the time you expose your dog to the traffic noises and decrease the distance to the street. Increase the amount of time that your dog is exposed to the sound by no more than 5 to 10 seconds each time. Similarly, increase the amount of time you ignore your dog in between exposure to the sounds. As long as your dog is happy and willing to eat or play, gradually increase the amount of time he’s exposed to the traffic noises and decrease the distance between the dog and the traffic. For the best results, try to change only one thing at a time: if you decrease distance, keep the amount of time the same; if you increase the time, remain at the same distance as last time.
- Backward conditioning is an excellent way to help your dog feel more comfortable walking along a specific route. If your goal is to have your dog walk comfortably to and from the park, start by driving your dog one quarter of a block away from your home along the path on which you want to eventually walk your dog home. Get your dog out of the car and walk the quarter block home. If your dog is pulling on the leash out of fear, not just because he hasn’t been taught not to pull, stop and wait for him to stop pulling, and then start walking again. It may take you a long time to walk that quarter block, but remember that you’re trying to teach your dog that the more he pulls, the longer it will take to get home. If he stops pulling, he’s rewarded by moving closer to “safety.” If your dog is so frightened that he’s unable to learn this after 5 to 10 walks, then you’ll need to consider medication for your dog. Assuming that your dog grasps the concept that not pulling gets him home more quickly, continue to drive him away from home along the path you want to walk. Each day, drive an extra quarter block away from home so that he has to walk a little farther. When you get to the point where you’re driving your dog to the park and walking him home, spend a good week or two with repeated sessions at this stage so that your dog really looks forward to his time at the park. Then drive him a quarter block from the park, walk him there, spend time at the park, and then walk home. If all goes well, continue with this strategy, each day requiring that he walk a little farther to reach the park, and then walk all the way home. If he has to pass by your parked car on the walk home, it would be best to have a family member come and retrieve the car while you and your dog are at the park. Your goal is to eventually build your dog up to walking to and from the park without any fear of traffic noises. He’ll probably still be nervous on other streets, but at least he’ll learn that this particular route is safe.
Treatment for Fear of the Sound of Skateboards or Inline Skates:
Dogs can have one of three types of reactions toward skateboards or inline skates, such as inline skates. Some dogs ignore them, some react as though they’d like to chase them down and tear them to bits, and some act afraid of them, cowering and shying away when they pass. Many dogs might initially fear the movement of people on skateboards or roller blades, but they quickly learn to recognize the unique sounds they make. The treatment suggestions below are specifically for those dogs who become frightened by the sound of skateboards or inline skates.
- Find an assistant who can ride a skateboard or inline skates, or locate a park frequented by kids on skateboards and inline skates. Determine the distance your dog needs to be from the action to be able to relax and eat treats or play games.
- If you are using a helper, decide ahead of time on a signal that means “move” and a signal that means “stop.” Sit or stand with your dog at the distance you have determined to be “safe.” Have your helper move around on the board or blades. Encourage your dog to get excited, feed him very tasty treats, or engage him in a fun game of fetch or tug. After 20 to 30 seconds, signal the helper to stop, and at the same time, stop interacting with your dog. Put the treats and toys away, and ignore your dog for about two minutes. Signal your helper to move again, and begin interacting with your dog again.
- If your dog is doing well and you don’t see signs of fear, increase the amount of time your helper moves on the board or blades by 5 to 10 seconds. Similarly, increase the amount of time you ignore your dog in between rewards. As long as your dog continues to look happy and is willing to eat or play, over a period of several days or weeks of repetitions of these sessions, gradually increase the amount of time your helper moves around on the board or blades. Also work on decreasing the distance between your dog and the board or blades. For best results, try to change only one thing at a time. So if you decrease distance, keep the amount of time the same. Or if you increase the time, don’t decrease distance. Just remain at the same distance as the previous session.
Your end goal might be to be able to pass by someone on a skateboard or inline skates at a reasonable distance (say, 10 to 20 feet) without your dog cowering or shying away. If you’re patient, this goal is certainly attainable—but your dog is probably never going to want to learn to ride a skateboard!
As you do treatment sessions to help your dog overcome his fear of skateboards and inline skates, keep the following tips in mind:
- If you’re taking advantage of people at the park who are skateboarding or using inline skates, the best approach is to position yourself at your dog’s “safe” distance and then move away from the noisy people after a few seconds of your dog tolerating them and enjoying your treats or toys. The treatment sequence under these circumstances would be to position you and your dog at the safe distance, encourage your dog to get excited, feed him very tasty treats, or engage him in a fun game of fetch or tug. After 20 to 30 seconds, say “Good boy!” and walk briskly in the opposite direction of the people on skateboards or inline skates. Don’t play with or feed your dog when you’re moving away from the people. After two minutes or so, turn back toward the people, stop at the safe distance, and start giving treats or playing with toys again. Repeat the sequence, increasing the time in view of the people on skateboards or inline skates and decreasing the distance, as described in the treatment steps above.
- If your dog lunges, barks or snarls at a person on a skateboard or inline skates as he or she passes, don’t yell at your dog, but immediately turn him away from the sight of the person and walk briskly away. The instant he stops trying to turn back toward the person, praise him and offer him a treat or a toy. It’s best to then terminate your treatment sessions and find a qualified professional to help you, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist in your area, you can get assistance from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT)—but make sure that she or he has professional training and extensive experience in successfully working with aggression and fear. This expertise isn’t required for CPDT certification. Please read our article, Finding Professional Help, for information about locating a behaviorist or CPDT in your area.
- Many dogs benefit from seeing and hearing their owner on a skateboard or inline skates. Move around and try to engage your dog gently and playfully with you while you’re on the board or blades around your home. If this seems to help alleviate your dog’s fear, take the board or blades out to the street or the park so that your dog can learn that these things are safe in other environments too. It’s also helpful to occasionally be on the street or at the park on the board or blades and arrange to have a family member walk your dog to the area. This teaches your dog that even unknown skateboarders or people on inline skates can be fun because sometimes they turn out to be you!
Fear of Miscellaneous Noises:
Dogs can develop a fear of just about any type of noise, from a fly swatter hitting the wall to a golf club or baseball bat cracking against a ball. The same rules apply for treating any type of noise fear or phobia. If you can reproduce the sound or record a realistic version, it’s reasonable to attempt a DSCC procedure such as the one described above for thunderstorm fear or phobia.
What NOT to Do:
- Do not force your dog to confront his fear by making him experience sounds that frighten him. This practice can actually increase your dog’s fear and worsen his behavior.
- Do not scold or physically punish your dog for being afraid, even if he expresses his fear by barking at noises that upset him. Yelling or physically “correcting” your dog will merely intensify his fear and distress—and it can worsen his behavior.
- Do not constantly reassure your dog. You do want him to look to you for safety and security, but it’s not helpful to repeatedly pick him up or chant “It’s okay, it’s okay....” Your dog won’t understand what you’re saying, and if you sound anxious, you might make him even more upset. Instead, calmly praise and reward your dog for confident, relaxed behavior if he offers it on his own.
In some cases, it may be helpful to incorporate medication into your dog’s treatment program. If he’s so frightened or panicked that he can’t cope with a noise that scares him, no matter how muffled or distant or low in volume, or if your dog shows improvement for a time but then seems to stall, medication might be the catalyst to get behavior modification working. Dog Appeasement Pheromone (DAP™), a synthesized canine pheromone might also help to reduce your dog’s anxiety.
You may also wish to consider medication in situations where you can’t reproduce the sound, or you can’t prevent your dog from experiencing the sound at full intensity outside of treatment sessions. Although some owners have legitimate concerns about the use of medication, in many cases it can improve the quality of life for a pet and his guardian dramatically, and it may not be necessary long-term. For instance, a show dog developed a fear of flying in an airplane at about two years of age as a result of the loud noises in the cargo hold. His guardian wanted him to fly so that he could accompany her to seminars and dog shows. The guardian couldn’t replicate the noises associated with airplane flight, so she couldn’t attempt DSCC exercises. She could, however, fly him in the airplane’s main cabin because he was small enough to fit in a Sherpa® airline bag. She tried this first, but he was still terrified of all the loud noises of the plane. So she opted for using medication to reduce her dog’s anxiety and then took him on a short flight. He was quite relaxed. The medication was out of his system within a few hours. He was even more comfortable on the flight home. The next time, about one month later, the guardian took a longer flight. Her dog did great. After six flights with no signs of anxiety, she flew him unmedicated, and he was still relaxed. He’s been flying 6 to 10 times a year ever since with no anxiety at all.
Always consult with your veterinarian, a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behavior (Dip ACVB), or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) who works closely with veterinary professionals before giving your dog any type of medication for a behavior problem. Please read our article, Finding Professional Help, for information about finding one of these professionals in your area.
Depending on the nature of your dog’s fear, you may be able to (a) avoid the sound that frightens your dog, (b) live with the fear because the sound happens infrequently and isn’t too stressful to your dog, (c) reproduce the sound and attempt the DSCC exercises, and/or (d) give your dog anti-anxiety medication. Although you’ll need to invest some time and patience to help your dog with his problem, don’t despair. Many dogs can successfully overcome or live with noise fear or phobia.
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