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Sudden, loud noises can be frightening to dogs. We can't explain to them what the noises are, so their instinct is to run for cover. A dog with severe noise anxiety does not recover after the initial startle but remains in a state of anxiety. Usually, it's repetitive loud noises such as thunderstorms or fireworks that send the dog into panic mode. However, some dogs will fret over one car backfiring. Noise sensitive dogs may become severely distressed in shelter or kennel environments due to the constant barking of other dogs. Once a dog has associated something with the startling noise, that something can trigger the same anxiety as the actual noise. For example, a dog who has associated rain with thunder will show the same signs of distress when it rains without thunder.
It's normal to startle when one hears a sudden loud noise. However, noise phobic dogs go beyond a startle response. They may hide and refuse to come out or try to get in your lap where it's "safe". They may refuse to eat. Some dogs lose control of their bladder or bowels. One frightening noise can set off diarrhea for a week! Other responses to scary noises are trembling, drooling, panting, pacing, barking or whining. Some dogs become destructive in an attempt to "escape" the perceived threat. Dogs have even been known to go through glass doors or windows.
Calming the Storm
The first thing is to make sure your dog is safe. Many dogs will panic and injure themselves. When you know something is coming that will distress them, such as fireworks or the garbage truck, make arrangements for their safety. It's helpful if you can be with the dog initially until his behavior can be modified, but that isn't always realistic. Thunderstorms can crop up at anytime. Crates are a great option IF the dog likes the crate and does not try to escape it. If he does, you will need a more creative solution. Your dog's Veterinarian may prescribe tranquilizers if your dog is a danger to himself.
The next step is to work on changing your dog's response to the feared noises. One method is to use distraction. Choose a special toy or come up with a game that your dog loves. At the first sign of noise stress, start playing with your dog. Reserve the toy or game for ONLY those times when he is noise stressed. The combination of the fun experience and your relaxed attitude will help your dog see that the noise is not scary but means FUN instead!
Another method is desensitization. Make a recording of the scary noise. Play it on a low volume so that it does not evoke an anxiety response in your dog. Give him treats and praise for staying calm. Gradually increase the volume over time, always staying below that which evokes an anxiety response in your dog. Praise and treat for calm. This is the 'getting into a tub of hot water' method. The idea is to get your dog used to the noise little by little until it no longer bothers him.
Finally, the more confident the dog is, the less likely he is to be noise phobic. Confidence-building can be incorporated into your everyday routine. Basic obedience training builds confidence because they learn they can do things to earn praise.Nothing In LIfe is Free is also a confidence builder because it gives the dog some control over his environment. Consistent rules with clear consequences also build confidence because the dog knows what he can and cannot do. Long Down also builds confidence because the dog learns that he can control himself.
Additional ResourcesTeaching Self-Control
Thunderstorm and Noise Phobias
Anxiety in Dogs Main Page