Noise phobias in dogs are common problem and are difficult and frustrating to treat. A dog can develop a phobia to any sound. Common sounds include fireworks, vacuums, sirens, gunshots, and thunderstorms. Of these, thunderstorms and fireworks are by far the most common.
Noise phobias can develop for several reasons. It could be something as simple as not being exposed to a certain sound during the critical socialization period (4-14 wks of age). There is also a genetic component. Some dogs, just like people, are more timid and fearful vs bold and outgoing. These dogs are going to be naturally more fearful than others, even without the occurrence of something traumatic. Many dogs develop these phobias over time. For example, a puppy gets startled by the sound of thunder, an owners sees this and goes to the dog and starts to pet him and say “it’s okay” in an attempt to calm and comfort him. While the owner’s intentions are to calm and comfort, what they end up doing is reinforcing the fear.
Noise phobias can manifest in many different ways. A mild case may involve panting, tremors and whining. A severe case can involve chewing holes through walls and aggression. It is important to note that these dogs are extremely anxious. They are having panic attacks. They are not purposely trying to destroy things. Other signs include urinating or defecating, hiding, chewing, pacing/following, panting, digging, escaping, drooling, attention seeking behaviors, excessive gas, barking, trembling, and dilated pupils.
Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning
The proper treatment involves several steps and centers around desensitization and counter-conditioning (DCC). During the DCC program it is important to NOT expose the dog to any of the sounds/components that he is afraid of. This is another thing that makes fixing this problem so difficult. How do you control the weather? Well, obviously you cannot, so it would be best to start treatment when it is not thunderstorm season. A DCC program involves exposing the dog to each component of the noise to a degree that either does not evoke a fearful response at all (this can be difficult) or at the very least evokes less of a fearful response. Reward relaxation/no/less response with praise and a food treat. If your dog is not accepting the food treat, he is too stressed and the intensity of the stimulus needs to be decreased.
We have CD’s with recordings of thunderstorms, fireworks, gunshots and other noise. Play the recording on a very low setting, barely audible, and reward calm behavior. Do not increase the volume too fast. Going too fast is the most common mistake people make. After several short sessions (3-5 minutes each) per day for a few days, begin to increase the volume. If your dog begins to react, ignore him, turn the sound off, and restart at the previous volume that he did not react to and start over. I cannot stress enough the importance of going slow. You cannot go too slow, but you can very easily go too fast.
There are some product and drugs that can also help during desensitization:
There are several products on the market that can help dogs with noise phobias, however, none of these are intended to be used as the sole treatment and are intended to be used in conjunction with behavior modification. In other words, there is no short cut and choosing one of these because it is an easy way of dealing with the problems will likely result in failure about 90% of the time.
DAP Collars and Room Plug-Ins – DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) collars and room plug-ins can help to decrease anxiety in dogs, regardless of the cause. They should be used together and constantly, not “as needed.” The collar needs to have a tight fit, not snug, tight. It needs to be tight (just able to fit one finger under the collar) because it gets activated by body heat. Therefore, it needs to have good contact with the skin. It should also be kept dry, moisture will significantly decrease it’s effect. The room diffusers should be plugged into an outlet that is out in the open (not behind a couch) and preferably in the middle of the room. One diffuser covers an area of 600 square feet.
Medicating your dog may not be an appealing idea to you, but often times medications can be a tremendous help. Stress and anxiety inhibit learning, in dogs as well as in people. Think about it, how well are you going to learn if you think your life in truly in danger? Your main concern is to escape that danger, be it real or perceived. Same goes for dogs. If anxiety can be decreased, learning can be increased. There are several types of medications that can be used.
Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRI) and Tricyclic Anti-depressants – Medications such as Prozac (Reconcile), Zoloft, and Clomicalm will cause an increase in the serotonin levels of the brain, producing a calming effect. They also have an effect on other neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine and dopamine. This class of medication is meant to be taken for a period of months to years. The positive effects of these medications are seen after taking them daily for 4-6 weeks.
Benzodiazepines – Medications such as Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin are anti-anxiety medications that start to work in about 30-45 minutes. These can be used on an as needed basis, but can also be used daily until the SSRI’s kick in.
Anxitane And Calm-eze– These are nutraceuticals for the brain. It decreases the frequency of alpha waves in the visual cortex of the brain. This makes visual stimuli (rain and lightening) less stimulating. It has no side effects and does not cause sedation.
Although this can be a frustrating and time consuming problem to deal with, progress can be made. A realistic goal is one of improvement, not complete resolution. If I can get a dog to go from chewing holes through walls to only tremoring during a storm, I am happy.
If you have any further questions then please contact us. It is worth starting to desensitise your pets now to be ready for the next summer and fireworks season.