How to help dogs overcome noise fears
By Mikkel Becker
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Did you discover on Independence Day that your new puppy is fearful of fireworks, or even that your adult dog has a newfound fear of the flash, bang, boom? Puppies can be surprised and startled by the sight and sound of fireworks, and it’s also not unusual for a dog’s fears to increase over time. Eventually, continued exposure results in trembling, howling or destructive behavior that is unexpected, because it never seemed to bother the dog before. A 2015 study in Norway found that fear of noises can increase with age. Female dogs were more likely to develop noise sensitivity than males, and neutered dogs were more at risk than intact dogs.
And it’s not just fireworks. Other sounds that can upset dogs include construction noise, gunshots and sirens. Often, these noises fall outside what the dog considers “normal.” In other cases, the dog may associate the sounds with scary situations from the past. And sometimes a fear of certain sounds can be genetic: Breed and parent personality can both be factors. The Norwegian study found that among the 17 breeds looked at, those with the highest frequency of noise sensitivity were the Norwegian buhund, the soft-coated wheaten terrier and the Lagotto Romagnolo.
If fireworks and other loud noises cause your dog to bury his head under the covers, start now to help him learn to become more comfortable with a variety of sounds. Common noises that dogs may encounter at some point in their life include infants crying, helicopters hovering and children screeching in play. Here’s how to expose your dog to sounds in a way that keeps him relaxed and happy as he stores them in his brain under “nothing to be afraid of.”
Start by introducing the sound at a low level the dog is comfortable with. Keeping it at a distance is a good idea, too. For instance, you can set a blow dryer on low, or turn on the vacuum cleaner, and leave them in another room with the door closed. It’s not always possible to control when or where your dog will hear a sound — although trash trucks and buses usually operate on a schedule — so finding or making recordings can help you to manage your dog’s exposure to frightening noises.
Pair the sound with positive experiences such as treats, play or mealtime. That works to change the dog’s emotional response to the sound over time. When he’s in a happy and relaxed state, he’ll be better at learning how to react to the sound. This is also a good exercise to perform with puppies and dogs who don’t have an established fear of noise, because it helps to keep them that way. Early exposure helps increase a dog’s comfort level with noises throughout life.
Slowly increase the intensity of the sound. Think days, not minutes or hours. If you move ahead too quickly, the dog’s fear can intensify. Wait until he remains happy and relaxed at the lowest setting. Watch for signs of discomfort, such as pacing or yawning, and decrease the volume or increase the distance from the noise until he relaxes again. End on a positive note by asking for a favorite trick or playing a game and rewarding him.
Conditioning a dog to have a calm response to loud or unexpected noises takes time. By taking little steps now, you can gradually build a lasting, positive change in your dog’s behavior in the face of fireworks or other sounds that frighten him. By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, you’ll both be better prepared for noisy celebrations. You can find more about managing your dog’s fear of noises at FearFreeHappyHomes.com.