We have smoke alarms, burglar alarms, car alarms, personal alarms, and even some startling cell phone ring tones – and when harsh sounds scare our dogs they often have no way of escaping to a quiet place. The effect can be thoroughly unnerving.
When we think of dogs and noises we usually imagine dogs barking incessantly, causing a disturbance. However, the reverse is also true. Dogs can be frightened, sometimes dangerously so, by noise, and our ever more noise-polluted environment is creating some significant physical and psychological challenges for our canines.
Wild dogs, including wolves, will usually head in the opposite direction to a loud noise. As thunderous clouds approach, the animals make a hurried exit away from the storm. They have learned that if they run far enough they eventually will find peace.
Not so for our pets. First, they are exposed to an ever increasing number and variety of harsh, chilling sounds. We now have smoke alarms, burglar alarms, car alarms, personal alarms, even some cell phone ring tones that to a dog can be unnerving. But unlike wild dogs, our pets are confined. Imagine a dog alone in a house when a smoke alarm or burglar alarm goes off. The dog will instinctively want to escape but be unable to.
Can be damaging
Worse, what if that dog is kenneled? He can’t even hide. Even in a back yard, a dog cannot flee from a frightening sound. Many have tried to dig their way out. And, of course, a dog locked in a car when the alarm goes off will often claw viciously in an attempt to get out. The inability to escape this uncontrollable terror can lead to serious physical injury and long term psychological problems.
The impact loud noises have on our pets is often difficult to assess. Not all dogs respond similarly to startling noises. A few become hyper-vigilant but most will instinctively try to flee. It is when a dog starts to generalize his fear of noises to the point that almost any loud or unusual sound causes a panic that the dog is considered to be noise phobic.
Some owners think that they merely have a nervous or skittish dog. Some say their dog is just a baby or a coward. But if a dog trembles, urinates, defecates or goes into a blind panic at sudden sounds, the reaction is more than just a dislike of noises.
Left untreated, noise phobias invariably get worse. Some breeds, notably the herding breeds, may be predisposed to the affliction and it appears that dogs who suffer separation anxiety may also be more prone to noise phobia.
If you suspect that your dog is developing a noise phobia, you have to be careful not to reinforce this fear. Although you may want to, you should not overly comfort and pet your dog in such situations. The dog will see this as a reward and also confirmation that the situation requires comforting. Likewise, don’t scold or mock the dog for being afraid, for this will only add to the anxiety of an already anxious situation.
Drugs ease the anxiety
Dogs are pack animals so if you, the leader of the pack, remain calm and confident, the dog will have some reassurance that you are in control of the situation. Your easy-going manner and relaxed demeanor can provide guidance for your dog’s reaction.
Moderate to severe noise phobias require more proactive approaches. Since no one strategy is successful for all dogs, professional help is usually recommended. The most common approach is to attempt behavior modification. These techniques try to desensitize the dog to noise in order to extinguish the overreaction.
Environmental controls, where you try to eliminate as many noises as feasible, may also help. Finally, drug therapy is frequently included in treatment. Medication can include different classes of drugs such as anti-anxiety, antidepressants and tranquilizers. You might also consider natural, herbal remedies.
It is important to understand the difference between the normal fear of loud noises a dog expresses and fear that has become pathologic. You know your dog best and if you sense that your dog overreacts to noises, then consult with your vet. Remember, a noise phobia left untreated will only get worse and may result in permanent physical and psychological damage.
Animal lover Robert Urano was longtime operator of a Winnipeg pet food store.