Managing noise phobias
Fireworks are the most common cause of noise phobias in pets, but thunder, gunshots and traffic can also be a problem. While the behaviour may start as a simple fear response, it usually becomes worse with time, so the reaction to fireworks may intensify each year.
Fear is a healthy control which protects us from danger. It starts when the threat is present, and stops when it goes away, and is proportional to the level of threat. In contrast, phobias are intense, and not proportional to any immediate threat – think of the person with a spider or flying phobia.
Phobias can often be traced to a single traumatic event, and genetic factors can also be involved – certain breeds seem to have a higher incidence, particularly collies and German Shepherd Dogs. Early experience is also very important – puppies reared in a quiet situation with little sound stimulation will often find a wide range of domestic and urban noises alarming. This is one reason we advocate early socialisation of puppies.
Development of phobias occurs in stages. In stage 1, the animal learns to predict the arrival of the noise, eg in the case of thunder storms by the change in atmospheric pressure. It will then go to the place it considers safest. Most phobic dogs have a stage 1 phobia.
In stage 2, the dog may develop problems which affect its behaviour in a more wide-ranging way. For example, it gets caught by an unpredicted thunderstorm in the park, or is left trapped in a part of the house away from its normal bolt-hole while there are fireworks. In the former example, the dog may refuse to return to the park in the future, or in the worst case scenario to leave the house at all. In the latter, the dog may become very destructive when left in the same location again, even though there is no noise, in an attempt to escape. This behaviour may be wrongly put down to separation anxiety.
Treatment of noise phobia is therefore recommended at the earliest possible point, both to decrease the dog’s discomfort and to stop it worsening and generalising. Historically, a sedative called ACP was used by vets to calm pets during the firework period. These days it has been realised that this drug does not take the fear away but it does stop the dog reacting, so it is still scared but cannot do anything about it – with consequent welfare implications.
Treatment of Noise Phobias
Changes the owner can make:
- Do not get cross with a fearful animal – this reinforces to the pet that the sound is something to be frightened of.
- Do not comfort or reassure him – this is rewarding the behaviour and can make it much worse.
- Ignore the behaviour and try to act happy and relaxed. Reward the dog with praise and affection when the fear response has subsided.
- Provide a refuge – it may be an area it has chosen itself, such as a darkened bedroom or bathroom, or you may need to provide one yourself. Black out the room as far as possible, play some music and puts lots of soft furnishings in the room to absorb sound.
- When fireworks are anticipated, walk the dog early and feed a large, carbohydrate-rich meal about 2 hours beforehand.
Help available from us:
- DAP diffuser – produces a pheromone that the bitch produces when suckling puppies. This reassures the dog and reduces anxiety. It should be installed at least 2 weeks prior to fireworks, but can still be effective nearer the time. It should be placed near to the dog’s bolthole.
- Medication – either longtem for severe phobias or shortterm for acute stage 1 phobias. Please make an appointment with the vet to discuss which form of medication is most appropriate for your pet.
- Densitisation and counter-conditioning CDs – the aim of these is to expose the dog to a constant very low level of the sound that they find frightening, at a level to which they do not respond. Full instructions come with the discs. Once the pet has got to the point where it is no longer scared of the sound, it is taught to associate the noise with good things such as food treats and praise, so that not only is it not scared, it hears the sound as a positive thing.
Densitisation is not a ‘quick fix’ amd does take a long time and a dedicated owner, however the benefits are large. Sometimes medication is necessary during the process to help the dog learn and reduce its anxiety whilst doing so.