Scary Sounds: Understanding Noise Phobia in Dogs

by Diana Bocco

Do you have a dog who jumps at the sound of thunder or starts shaking every time you turn the vacuum on or there are fireworks in the distance? He might be suffering from noise phobia.

A poorly understood condition, noise phobia can actually develop in dogs of all ages, although dogs over a year of age are more likely to suffer from it, according to Kristen Collins, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) and the director of the newly opened ASPCA's rehab center, which specializes in treating fearful and undersocialized dogs.

“Some dogs simply seem more sensitive and susceptible to developing a fear of noises, and this susceptibility may indicate a genetic predisposition toward the problem,” Collins explains.

Other dogs learn to fear certain sounds. “A dog who isn't initially afraid of a sound can become fearful when an unpleasant event is linked with that noise,” Collins adds.

What Noise Phobia Really Is (And Isn't)

Although they might all sound the same, fear, anxiety, and phobia are actually quite different.

“Fear is a physiologic, emotional, and behavioral response to animate or inanimate things that pose a threat of harm,” explains Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, and clinical instructor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, where she's part of the Animal Behavior Clinic. Fear is a normal reaction because it enables animals to respond to situations that could be potentially dangerous.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is what Borns-Weil defines as a persistent fear or apprehension of something that is not present or imminent. And finally, there are phobias: extreme, persistent fears of a stimulus, such as a thunderstorm, that is entirely out of proportion to the level of threat it poses. 

“Noise phobia is an extreme, persistent fear of auditory stimuli that is out of proportion to the real danger, if any, associated with the noise,” says Borns-Weil. “There is no survival advantage conferred on an animal that panics in response to things that are not truly threatening or dangerous.”

Symptoms and Behaviors Associated With Noise Phobias

The symptoms of noise phobia are usually extreme. A dog who's experiencing a phobia episode is panicking, so he'll pace, pant, tremble, and hypersalivate.

“Frightened dogs may cower, ears flat against their skulls, eyes wide, muscles tensed, and tails tucked,” explains Collins. “Some dogs become restless and move around anxiously with no apparent purpose, while others become immobile, shutting down and unable to move.”

Some fearful dogs cling to their owners, seeking comfort, while others prefer to hunker down on their own, away from people and preferably somewhere dark and quiet. “I knew one very friendly, loving dog who feared the sound of thunder and only seemed comforted by lying down on a dog bed, alone in a bathtub, until the sound stopped,” Collins says.  

It's also not uncommon for dogs with noise phobia to engage in destructive behavior like chewing, digging, scratching, and tearing up objects in the home.

“At worst, noise phobias can trigger frantic attempts to escape,” says Collins. “Panicked dogs may scratch and dig frantically at doors or even jump out of windows.”

What's Behind Noise Phobia?  

Fireworks, gunshots, and vacuum cleaners are common causes of noise phobia, according to Borns-Weil. “Dogs may also become phobic of fire alarms and even cooking because they associate it with accidental triggering of the alarm,” Borns-Weil adds.

There are also less common fear triggers, such as crying babies, people sneezing and/or coughing, snow sliding off the roof, and even the clicking of the furnace when it turns on, according to Borns-Weil.

“I also meet dogs that are fearful of electronic tones,” Borns-Weil says. “Dogs that have been trained using electronic collars that give a beep before emitting a painful electric shock may become generally fearful of electronic tones, including message alerts on cell phones.”

Although thunderstorms are also a common cause of canine phobia, Borns-Weil says it's important to understand the difference between noise phobia and thunderstorm phobia.

“Storm phobia is multisensory,” Borns-Weil says. “While it certainly includes very loud noise produced by thunder, other aspects of the storm (flashes of lightning, heavy wind, rain battering the roof, changes in air pressure, etc.) may be either independent fear triggers or become anxiety-inducing predictors of impending thunder.” Thunderstorm phobia and other noise phobias may co-occur but they also occur separately, Borns-Weil adds. 

Trying to understand what caused the phobia to develop can be tricky. For example, lack of socialization is often behind the issue.

“Puppies that have insufficient exposure to a variety of normal stimuli during their first four months of life are at higher risk of being overly fearful as adults,” according to Borns-Weil.

Older dogs can also develop phobias following an exposure to an extremely frightening situation. “Recently, I saw a dog that was extremely frightened of the sound of wind after having been in a home when it was hit by a tornado,” says Borns-Weil.

And here's something you might not have expected to hear: Your dog's noise phobia could be related to his health. “Any illness, pain or itching may lower a dog’s threshold for anxiety and fearfulness,” according to Borns-Weil.

Dealing with the Problem

For discrete sounds such as the vacuum cleaner, Borns-Weil says systematic desensitization and counterconditioning can be a very effective treatment.

“It involves the presentation of the frightening sound at a gradually increasing intensity, always making sure to stay below the threshold of intensity that would cause a fear response,” Borns-Weil explains. “The presentation of the sound is paired with a high value reward such as food, play, or petting.”

A clear example of this is the story of a dog named Nugget, who became extremely anxious when she heard any large vehicle pass by on the street outside her house. “She and her mom had recently relocated to a busier part of town, so the sounds were new to her,” says Collins. “To help with this, I asked her to buy a CD with traffic noises.”

From then on, Nugget's mom would play the CD at a very low volume. “Then she gave Nugget a frozen Kong toy, stuffed full of boiled chicken bits and other tasty things that Nugget never got at any other time.” Collins explains. “After a few sessions, Nugget would notice the quiet traffic sounds when her mom turned on the CD and start looking excited, knowing that her goodie was coming next.” By the time Nugget's mom started to increase the volume of the CD, Nugget was already doing much better and was able to deal with the sound.

Desensitization and counterconditioning don't work well for certain noise phobias, such as thunderstorm phobia, since storms are multisensory.

“A dog may be desensitized to the sound of thunder with the help of a recording but still will be nervous about the sound of wind, the flashes of light, the rain, the pressure change, the static electricity in the air,” Borns-Weil says.

For thunderstorm phobia, she says a dog can be taught to go to a “safe place” in the home. Or you can try using sights and sounds—white noise, relaxing music, light blocking shades—to shut out the storm as much as possible. 

Anything else you can do? It depends on your dog. If you have a dog who approaches you for company and comfort when scared, don't ignore him. “In fact, ignoring and avoiding him may make him feel confused and more fearful,” Borns-Weil says. So let your boy sit on your lap if that makes him feel better, but keep in mind that providing comfort will not address the underlying problem. You'll still have to work on helping your dog overcome his fear.

Whatever you do, never punish or reprimand your dog for being scared.

“Punishing a dog for destructiveness, barking, or soiling that is done out of panic will only increase anxiety and make the problem worse,” Borns-Weil says.  

There are many other options if desensitization and counterconditioning are not helping a pet, says Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM. She recommends using cotton balls or rolled gauze sponges to place in the ear canals, which can lessen the noise during storms and fireworks displays. Just make certain to remove them after the inciting event. 

There are also natural calming agents which can help some pets, says Dr. Grzyb. Composure chews, rescue remedy, and Adaptil collars are options that have worked for some dogs.

Finally, if all else fails, the use of medications, such as sedatives, can be helpful in severely affected pets.

This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Katie Grzyb, DVM

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