Desensitizing a Dog to Sudden Loud Noises

Firecrackers, thunder, and other loud, out-of-nowhere sounds often leave dogs frightened and wanting to flee to a safer place.

These types of fears may develop even though your dog has had no traumatic experiences associated with loud noises. The good news is that you can successfully resolve many fear-related problems. However, if left untreated, your dog’s fearful behavior will probably get worse.

The most common behavior problems associated with fear of loud noises are destruction and escaping. When your dog becomes frightened, they try to reduce their anxiety. They may try to escape to a place where the sounds of thunder or firecrackers are less intense. Suppose they feel less afraid by leaving the yard or going into a particular room or area of the house. In that case, the escape or destructive behavior is reinforced because it successfully lessens her fear. For some dogs, just the activity or physical exertion associated with one of these behaviors may be an outlet for their anxiety. Unfortunately, escape and destructive behavior can be a problem for you and could result in your dog’s physical injury.

Things that are present in the environment whenever your dog hears the startling noise can, from her viewpoint, become associated with the frightening sound.  Over a while, she may become afraid of other things in the environment that she associates with the noise that frightens her.  For example, dogs who are so scared of thunder may later become afraid of the wind, dark clouds, and flashes of light that often precede the sound of thunder. Dogs fearful of firecrackers may become frightened of the children who have the firecrackers or may become afraid to go in the backyard if that is where they usually hear the noise.

What you can do to help

Create a safe place

Try to create a safe place for your dog to go when she hears the noises that frighten her. But remember, this must be a safe location from her perspective, not yours. Pay attention to where she goes or tries to go when she is frightened, and if at all possible, give her access to that place. If she is trying to get inside the house, consider installing a dog door. If she is trying to get under your bed, give her access to your bedroom.

You can also create a “hidey-hole” that is dark, small, and shielded from the frightening sound as much as possible (a fan or radio playing will help block out the sound). Encourage her to go there when you are home and the thunder or other noise occurs. Feed her in that location and associate other “good things” happening to her there. She must be able to come and go freely from this location. Confining her in the “hidey-hole” when she does not want to be there will only cause more problems. The “safe place” approach may work with some but not all dogs. Some dogs are motivated to move and be active when frightened, and “hiding out” will not help them feel less fearful.

 Distract your dog

This method works best when your dog is just beginning to get anxious. Encourage your dog to engage in any activity that captures their attention and distracts them from behaving fearfully. Start when she first alerts you to the noise and does not show a lot of fearful behavior but is only watchful. Immediately try to interest her in doing something that she enjoys. Get out the tennis ball and play fetch (in an escape-proof area) or practice some commands that she knows. Please give her a lot of praise and treats for paying attention to the game or the commands.  As the storm or other noise builds, you may not be able to keep her attention on the activity, but it might delay the start of the fearful behavior for longer and longer each time you do it. Stop the process if you cannot keep her attention, and she begins acting afraid. If you continue, you may inadvertently reinforce her fearful behavior.

Behavior modification

Behavior modification techniques are often successful in reducing fears and phobias. The appropriate methods are called “counter-conditioning” and “desensitization.” This means to condition or teach your dog to respond in non-fearful ways to sounds and other stimuli that have previously frightened her. It would be best if you implemented these techniques very gradually. Begin by exposing your dog to an intensity level of noise that does not scare her and pair it with something pleasant like a treat or a fun game. Gradually increase the volume as you continue to offer her something satisfying. Through this process, she will associate “good things” with the previously feared sound.

Example:

  • Make a tape with firecracker noises on it.
  • Play the tape at such a low volume that your dog does not respond fearfully. While the tape is playing, feed her dinner, please give her a treat, or play her favorite game.
  • In your next session, play the tape a little louder while feeding her or playing her favorite game.
  • Continue increasing the volume through many sessions over several weeks or months. If the tape is playing, she displays fearful behavior at times while the tape is playing. STOP. Begin your next session at a lower volume — one that does not produce anxiety — and proceed more slowly.

If these techniques are not used correctly, they will not be successful and worsen.

For some fears, it can be challenging to recreate the fear stimulus. For example, thunder is accompanied by lightning, rain, and changes in barometric pressure, and your dog’s fearful response may be to the combination of these things and not just the thunder. You may need professional assistance to create and implement this behavior modification program.

 Consult your vetrinarian

Medication may be available, making your dog less anxious for short periods. Your veterinarian is the only licensed and qualified to prescribe medication for your dog. Do not attempt to give your dog any over-the-counter or prescription medication without consulting your veterinarian. Animals do not respond to drugs the same way people do, and a medication that may be safe for humans could be fatal to your dog. Drug therapy alone will not reduce fears and phobias permanently, but behavior modification and medication used together might be the best approach in extreme cases.

What not to do

  • Please do not attempt to reassure your dog when she is afraid. This may only reinforce her fearful behavior. If your pet soothes or gives treats to her when she is behaving fearfully, she may interpret this as a reward for her fearful behavior. Instead, try to act normally, as if you do not notice her fearfulness.
  • Putting your dog in a crate to prevent her from being destructive during a thunderstorm is not recommended. She will still be fearful when she is in the crate and is likely to injure herself, perhaps even severely, while attempting to get out of the crate.
  • Do not punish your dog for being afraid. Punishment will only make her more fearful.
  • Do not try to force your dog to experience or be close to the sound that frightens her. For example, making her stay close to a group of children lighting firecrackers will make her more afraid and cause her to become aggressive to escape from the situation.
  • Obedience classes will not make your dog less afraid of thunder or other noises but could boost her general confidence.

These approaches do not work because they do not decrease your dog’s fear. Merely trying to prevent her from escaping or being destructive will not work. If your dog is still afraid, she will continue to show that fear in whatever way she can (digging, jumping, climbing, chewing, barking, howling).

©2004. Adapted from material originally developed by applied animal behaviorists at the Dumb Friends League, Denver, Colorado. All rights reserved.
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