Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT
Updated: June 2011
If you’ve read some of my other posts here, you know I’ve mentioned my Australian Shepherd named Conner. He is quite the remarkable dog; lots of natural herding instinct, loves kids and men, and a born dog/dog communicator who helps me diagnose and treat dog/dog aggression cases. Conner has one problem though, noise phobia. This time of year sends him into fits of barking, stress panting, and pacing. We’re lucky in one way though, his symptoms are mild to moderate. Our clients report that some of their dogs hide (in bathtubs, closets, under the bed), shake and drool. This phobia is difficult to treat because it’s difficult or impossible to control the stimuli: thunder, fireworks, gunshots, cars backfiring, etc. Thunderstorms are even more difficult to deal with because thunderstorms are more than one stimulus: change in barometric pressure, metallic smell, wind, rain.
What Is Noise Phobia? Don’t Dogs Just Get Over It?
According to Karen Overall, VMD, PhD, ACVB, “Noise phobias are best defined as a persistent, excessive fear response to a sound or escape from the sound [Shull, 1994].”1 Notice the words persistent and excessive. Dogs don’t just “get over it” with time and enough exposure. In fact, we have documented cases where dogs got continually worse over time and even began generalizing their fear to other stimuli. An example of this is a dog who is thunder phobic that over time becomes afraid of rain. The best article I’ve ever read about storm phobias was written by Karen Overall in 2004 and can be found at the dvm360 website. The synopsis for this article is ” So, for all the pets who suffer, here’s the take home message: Storm and noise phobias are emergencies.”
Why Does My Dog Suffer from Noise Phobia?
We don’t know why some dogs exhibit noise phobia and others do not, but this condition is currently being studied. Some scientists believe that there is a genetic component to noise phobia. At the University of California San Francisco, Dr. Steven Hamilton, MD, PhD, is searching for the genes related to panic and anxiety disorders in dogs. You can read about Dr. Hamilton’s genetics work in a ucsfToday article titled Dogs Guide Search for Genes in Panic and Anxiety. Dr. Hamilton is a co-leader along with Dr. Overall of the Canine Behavioral Genetics Project. You can learn about this group’s work by visiting the Canine Behavior Genetics Project web site.
As with any behavior, there’s a genetic as well as learned component to its cause. We’ve had client dogs that learned to associate noises with “scary” things and “scary” things with noises.
How Can I Help My Dog?
There are a number of things that you can try to help your dog through the 4th of July fireworks display:
According to Dr. Karen Overall, “pharmacological intervention has been more successful in controlling a phobic response to noise than has flooding or desensitization.”2 So how do you have this discussion with your veterinarian? First of all, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to discuss your dog’s reaction to fireworks or thunderstorms. Your veterinarian should always be your first line of defense in improving your dog’s behavioral health. Understanding what medication your veterinarian prescribes for you and how to use it is very important since not all veterinarians are as experienced in prescribing for behavior as others. If you have one in your area, contact a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist. If you don’t have one in your area, ask your veterinarian if they have a PhD in Animal Behavior or know of a veterinarian who does. Most of the veterinarians that we work with at Companion Animal Solutions are not certified in veterinary behavior and don’t have PhDs, but they handle prescribing medication for behavioral issues brilliantly.
To be on the safe side, you might want to print out and take the following paragraph with you when you visit your veterinarian: “Acepromazine is not recommended for treating aggression or for home use in tranquilizing anxious, agitated or aggressive dogs. It provides chemical restraint and is not an anxiolytic. Acepromazine can also increase reactivity to sound and so may be particularly inappropriate for anxiety induced by sounds such as thunder, fireworks, large diesel engines, etc.. Benzodiazepines are considered safer for reducing situational anxiety.”3
Counter Conditioning Noise Phobia
Executing counter conditioning exercises for noise phobia helps many, many of the dogs that we work with at Companion Animal Solutions (including my own dog). You can start out by downloading sounds of thunder or fireworks. You can find just about any type of sound on the internet or through iTunes. Begin playing the sounds very quietly on your stereo or sound system over a number of days or weeks (if your dog reacts, you’re playing it too loud). You must play it softly enough to allow desensitization to take place. Over a number of days or weeks, you can slowly increase the volume (remember to keep it below your dog’s reaction level). You can also begin pairing a scary sound with food. Keep something in mind though, fireworks and thunder are accompanied by other stimuli such as vibration and light.
When my neighbors begin setting off fireworks, I get out my clicker and spray cheese, liverwurst, chicken, and hotdogs. The split second a firecracker goes off, I click and give Conner a treat from his favorite food list. When I first started this two years ago, I was only able to work with him for a minute or two before he just couldn’t take it anymore and would stop taking food. Now I’m able to work for a good 20 to 30 minutes before the stress panting takes over and we head downstairs to the quietest room in the house.
My 4th of July Strategy
I have an alprazolam (Xanax) prescription that I use for my dog Conner when the noise just gets to be too much. I make sure that I have plenty of stuffed Kongs, bully sticks, and raw beef rib bones to keep him busy in the “quiet room” when I can’t be working with him with my trusty clicker. Always remember that extinction is a huge part of behavior modification so keeping the dog from panicking is critical in seeing a decrease in fear over time. Keep in mind however, this is just what I’ve learned works best for my personal dog and his noise phobia. You should consult with your veterinarian and do what is best for your dog. I’m pleased to report that my dog Conner now gets through 4th of July fireworks with clicks/treats, frozen Kongs and chews but I stay home with him and have medication on hand just in case.
Here are some other products that you can try instead of medication or in combination with medication: The company that makes the Thundershirt claims that their product helps 85% of dogs with noise sensitivity/phobia and since they offer a money back guarantee, it’s worth trying. My owners’ reports have been mixed from “It really helped” to “I didn’t notice a difference”. Through A Dog’s Ear is a CD of classical music slowed waaaay down. This product is based on psycho acoustics. You can play this music during fireworks or thunderstorms. I didn’t notice that it helped my dog Conner but I noticed it made me sleepy! Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland which you can purchase in synthetic form. I’ve seen melatonin mentioned in various articles about noise phobia, the most recent being in an article by Dr. Karen Overall titled Noise reactivities and phobias in dogs: Implementing effective drug therapy (January 2011). If you own a noise phobic dog, you want all the help you can get. Please share your noise phobia experiences in our comments section.
1 Overall, K., Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, 1997, p.236.
2 Overall, K., Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, 1997, p.237.
3 Overall, K., Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, 1997, p.304.