Noise aversions, or phobias, which are exaggerated or irrational responses to loud noises, such as a thunderstorm or fireworks, are common in dogs. It is completely natural for a dog to be frightened by a loud sound that surprises her—after all, we feel the same way when a thunder clap comes out of nowhere—but dogs with noise phobias are terrified, not merely surprised.
The most common noise-aversion triggers are thunderstorms, fireworks, and gunfire, but vacuum cleaners, construction work, and loud street and traffic noise send some dogs searching for a safe space.
What does noise aversion look like?
Noise aversion in dogs can manifest in many ways, including:
- Escape attempts
- Inappropriate urination or defecation
- Destructive behavior
- Seeking close contact with humans
Irrational, exaggerated fear can put dogs and cats in harm’s way. For example, some dogs are so reactive to thunderstorms, they will escape the house by any means necessary, often injuring themselves, or getting lost.
Cats may be aloof and act as if nothing bothers them, but they have noise aversions, too. They may not manifest in cats as obviously as in dogs, but when your cat darts from the room in response to the garbage truck driving by or she runs under the bed with her ears pinned back and her pupils dilated, she is scared.
Help for noise-aversive pets
Noise aversion can progress in severity, so if you see signs in your pet, they should be addressed sooner rather than later. As with any other behavior-modification plans, treating noise aversion in pets requires patience. The mainstays of noise-aversion treatment are systematic desensitization and counterconditioning.
- Systematic desensitization — The process of making a pet less reactive to a stimulus (in this case, noise) through graduated exposure
- Counterconditioning — The creation of a new, more desirable response to a stimulus; counterconditioning for noise aversion involves rewarding the pet for good behavior (i.e., not reacting to noise) while undergoing systematic desensitization
Obviously, avoiding the trigger is the easiest way to prevent noise aversion in pets, but because we can’t control the weather, this isn’t always practical. The only option is to get pets used to the sound that scares them, which requires systematic desensitization and counterconditioning.
Let’s use the example of noise aversion triggered by fireworks, as the Fourth of July will be here before we know it, and fireworks phobia is common in dogs. Noise-aversive dogs hear loud sounds and see flashing lights and react with an exaggerated fear response. To help your noise-aversive dog, you need to teach her to not react to the sound she currently fears.
Start by purchasing or downloading a sound file or YouTube video of a loud fireworks display. Play the trigger sound softly at first, with the goal of not making your pet fearful. Phobic pets may need to start in the safety of another room while the sound plays.
While the trigger sound is playing, interact positively with your dog with any activity she enjoys, such as throwing a frisbee, playing with her, or giving her treats. The end goal is that she will pair a pleasurable experience (e.g., playing with you or eating treats) with the trigger sound.
Counterconditioning works only if the trigger sound volume is low enough that it does not cause fear. Once your pet is comfortable with the lowest level of sound, gradually increase the volume and begin counterconditioning again.
Behavior modification needs repetition and requires time and patience. The weeks leading up to the Fourth of July are a perfect time to begin systematic desensitization and counterconditioning. If you are confused about where to start, give us a call so we can help.
When you’re in the thick of it
We get it—behavior modification takes time, but your pet is suffering now and you want to help her if a thunderstorm pops up out of nowhere. Our favorite ways to help noise-aversive pets keep their cool include:
- Creating a safe space for your pet — If your pet has chosen her own safe space (e.g., under the desk or in her crate), make it as comfortable as possible
- Closing the blinds to hide lightning flashes or fireworks lights
- Playing music or white noise to mask the trigger sound
- Investing in a Thundershirt or other similar compression product, which make pets feel safe
- Considering Mutt Muffs to dampen the trigger sound
- Sound-proofing your pet’s crate with ThunderHut
- Plugging in a pheromone diffuser specific to dogs and cats that may help take the edge off your pet’s anxiety (only if started at least 24 hours beforehand)
- Discussing holistic and alternative remedies, such as L-tryptophan, theanine, and melatonin, with our team—we can prescribe these for mild or moderate cases
- Considering medical therapy (Some pets are so anxious and fearful, they can’t come close to settling down during a scary event, so counterconditioning becomes useless. Prescribed pharmaceuticals, given exactly as directed by us, will help your dog or cat relax enough for behavior-modification lessons.)
Watching pets who are truly suffering with noise aversion is heartbreaking. If your pet suffers from noise aversion, call us to talk about her treatment options. Remember, noise aversion can increase with each scary event, and treating a mild noise aversion is easier than addressing a severe condition. If you’re unsure about what constitutes mild versus severe aversion, give us a call. We’re here to help.