Understanding and Recognising This Behaviour
Phobias are a class of problems that we treat very commonly. The most common are noise phobias (especially vacuums, thunder, guns and fireworks phobias), so that’s what we’re going to explore in this blog! So if your dog is scared of sounds like these, you’ve come to the right place.
However the same principles of slow exposure and desensitisation to the fear-inducing stimulus apply for a variety of different phobias that dogs experience.
With the condition, certain noises will put a dog into a phobic state, which may cause them to become distressed, have dilated pupils, start shaking and panting and stop taking food. In extreme cases, the dog can even defecate, urinate or vomit from fear, and may shake violently and have chattering teeth. Not pretty.
Dogs in this state lose all rational awareness, and will make poor decisions, often doing everything they can to escape. These signs – particularly when a food-oriented dog won’t eat – indicate that your dog is in a strong state of sympathetic arousal, the fearful fight-or-flight state.
Many dogs with noise phobias also have other fear-based issues or separation anxiety too.
Why do noise phobias occur?
The ancestors to our dogs – wolves – are hypersensitive to unexpected noises, and will react very suspiciously towards them. A wolf will react to a loud and unexpected sound with extreme avoidance, going into a state of stress. This tendency is designed to keep the wolf safe from potentially dangerous situations.
Dogs are normally more robust and confident than wolves, but nevertheless they can still be reactive to loud noises. Some breeds are more susceptible, such as Pointers, Collies, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds. Because dogs are confined to our properties, they are unable to escape the noise like a wolf would, which is why it’s so important for us to desensitise them and rid them of their fears. If they DO escape, it has the opposite effect of keeping them safe, and they can find themselves in dangerous situations, out in public and on busy roads or lost.
Preventing this issue
One way that you can help your dog get comfortable with these scary noises, is to slowly and gradually expose and desensitise them to these noises. Ideally this would be done when your pup is young (in its Formative Period, between 2 – 4 months of age) to prevent any sensitivities developing in the first place. However you can also do it with an older dog.
You can do this by playing your dog a recording of these sounds at a very low volume, while using a clicker to click and reward your dog for calm, non-vocal responses. As your dog adjusts, you can very slowly increase the volume, continuing to click and reward your dog for remaining quiet. This works well for sounds that you can’t conjure up at any time (such as gunshots, fireworks or thunder). For more common household items like vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers, you can use the same technique but instead of a recording use the actual item and just start with it from a distance (e.g. a vacuum in the next room), gradually bringing it closer to your pup or dog as they adjust and show they are coping.
This work is best done with your dog comfortable and relaxed in a safe quiet area, using very high value food rewards (such as cooked chicken pieces) while your dog is nice and hungry, and therefore focused on the food! This technique works well with puppies to prevent a sound phobia occurring, and for dogs that have a mild sensitivity to these noises (not not a fully fledged phobia).
You can find recordings of many of these scary sounds here.
Treating this Behaviour
If your dog is highly sound phobic, your training will need to be more careful and intensive. The two main clinical techniques we use are desensitisation and counter conditioning, as well as flooding.
To make an effective diagnosis we need to carefully identify the stimuli that the dogs are fearful of, and then order them from least-fear inducing to most-fear inducing. Then in a systematic fashion we expose dogs to these fear-inducing stimuli whilst switching them into a learning state. The main tool we use for this training is clicker training.
My Dog Zen Virtual Dog School and Dog Zen Book both cover how to treat a dog with a Sound Phobia – it’s important to do this carefully and in a way that both pushes the dog’s boundaries in order to make progress, without pushing the dog so far that the training actually makes them more distressed and contributes to their trauma!
If you have any questions about your dog’s sound phobias or other fear-based behaviour, feel free to email us on firstname.lastname@example.org and one of our Senior Trainers will answer your questions and let you know he best way to get started on your training.