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Getting Dogs through Noise Phobias

It is not uncommon to hear of dogs developing “noise phobias”. Some dogs’ fear is so bad that they will do anything to escape the noise, even to the point of breaking windows to get inside or running away for miles. Unfortunately, some dogs are severely injured, while others are killed in accidental hit and runs during their escapade. What a tragedy.

Summer brings an increase in the number and intensity of “noise events” namely thunderstorms, fireworks and home renovations. It is is one of the busiest seasons for pounds and shelters because so many dogs escape during this period and get lost.

Noise phobia however is not limited to this time of year and it can become a very serious problem that will adversely affect your dog’s health and quality of life. Please act now for the sake of your dog...


GETTING THROUGH NOISE EVENTS SAFE AND SOUND

Of all noise phobias, thunderstorm phobias are one of the trickiest behavioural issues to deal with partially due to the randomness of when they occur, partially because you cannot be with your dog at all times to guide them through, partially because some recommended behavioural techniques are ineffective and partially because some medications are band aid solutions. 

Fireworks are easier to predict as are renovations – however renovations can continue for many months, not just a few hours, and so have the potential to do greater harm.

WHY DO DOGS DEVELOP NOISE PHOBIAS?

The reasons why dogs develop noise phobias are varied. Our canine companions have a heightened sense of hearing and they can be particularly sensitive to noise. Some dogs like people can have hearing issues which distort sound. Dogs that have poor eyesight are more likely to become jumpy or develop noise phobias because their visual alert system is hampered and they are often caught by surprise. 


Studies show that as dogs age they are more likely to develop noise phobias (which is in part due to declining eyesight and as hearing problems become an issue). Dogs with one type of anxiety issue are more likely to display other anxiety issues.

The other factor is, noise events like thunderstorms can be just plain loud and scary!  

I know I don’t like them. Thunderstorms are not just scary because of the sound, it’s the rattling of the house and windows, the static electricity in the air, the drop in air pressure, the wind and blasting rain, not to mention lightening and, they are unpredictable.
You know your dog has big issues with noise when:
  • They are stressed – They shake, cower and pant.
  • They seek to hide away - They attempt to bury themselves under a blanket or try to dig under the house.
  • They try to escape - They pace looking to scale the fence or chew through doors.
  • They get worked up – They bark at the air and lightening, their tail stands up and their hair is stiff, eyes are wide and wild.
  • They don’t respond well to instructions– They ignore commands during the noise event when at other times they would listen.
  • They exhibit any of these signs hours before a thunderstorm event - If this is your dog, it has developed “learned fear” of thunderstorms- through conditioning.
  • If you say yes to two or more criteria then intervention is appropriate. The last one is a huge tip off that your dog has an issue.

A LOOK AT DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO ADDRESSING NOISE PHOBIAS

#1. Desensitisation

Desensitisation is gradually getting your dog used to a stimulus and increasing it when your dog is accepting of it. This may work with patting your dog’s paws or getting them used to the clipper blades or lawn mower, but getting your dog used to a storm is a whole other ball game! 


Unfortunately this approach doesn’t do much to curb thunderstorm phobias because CDs that are prescribed to get your dog used to noise are grossly inadequate to the task of matching a storm. There are a couple of problems with this. The volume you can turn up your stereo often is nowhere near as loud as an actual storm. Secondly, some dogs don’t even care when a thunderstorm or fireworks CD is played, because it’s not the sound alone that makes it scary and uncomfortable – it’s the whole package.

#2. Medication

This is a common one. Some of the drugs that vets prescribe for noise phobias are Valium, ACP or Xanax. The difficulty with medication is that:

a) You have to be there to give it to your dog and not at work or living your life.

b) If you aren’t home, you must give it very early meaning your dog may be zonked and uncoordinated for a good part of the day (and Murphy’s Law says that particular day the storm will bypass your area!)

c) You need to monitor your dog closely for signs of over or under dosing, and adjusting the dose accordingly with your vets input.

d) They have side effects and are not without risk.

Dogs can develop a physiologic tolerance to sedatives, which means the dosage is usually required to be increased over time to be effective. Older dogs are susceptible to higher doses - it takes longer to be removed from the system placing an extra burden on organs. 

Valium and ACP are tranquilizers. Valium both calms and makes them drowsy while ACP makes them drowsy and uncoordinated but they still feel fear and panic. ACP is not for treating anxiety, but as a temporary measure may prevent your dog from escaping. ACP’s use is being phased out by Vets who understand its limitations in “treating” behaviours.

Xanax is used for panic attacks and is quick acting, doesn’t sedate your dog and is not known to induce physiologic tolerance, but it needs to be given every 4-6 hours (best before the onset of anxiety). 

It is becoming the go to drug for noise event phobias however it should be noted that without a behaviour modification strategy in place to teach you dog how to cope, owners tend to have to use it long term, when the goal should be for your dog’s responses to improve so you need less or no medication. 

And by the way, DON’T go giving your dog your Xanax or Valium because the dosage rate for canines is different to humans, and it must be given under guidance of your vet.

Be wary if your dog is prescribed an ongoing medication such as Reconcile, Clomicalm and Fluoxetine, for specific event behaviours with a known trigger who don’t display any other concomitant anxiety behaviours - it's overkill...

#3. Natural alternatives


Adaptil is a pheromone spray or collar. It mimics the pheromone a bitch produces especially for her puppies, to calm them down and orient themselves when she is away. 

In some dogs this is useful for thunderstorm and other noise phobias. The diffuser is a little more powerful and is plugged into a wall, and the pheromone must be allowed to build up to effectual levels in the air to work. I’ve personally found the collar ineffective.

NAS Calm and Rescue Remedy are options to try. I’ve seen hit and miss results with these, but they are worth a go and have fewer side effects. Long-acting Melatonin is getting a good wrap these days. I’ve known about it for many years and seen it used to good effect. While it is a natural substance and is the precursor to serotonin production, it requires a prescription in medicinal doses and many vets are unfamiliar with its use.

#4. Counter conditioning


This requires that you teach your dog to associate thunderstorms, fireworks or power tools with something pleasant or engaging in an activity not related to the storm. This requires time and skill, and for you to be home at the time of a storm to apply it. Many an owner has tried to engage their dog in play or another activity, only for the dog to ignore them. 


To be able to use counter conditioning effectively, the best way is to first build a strong relationship thorough obedience under distraction, good communication and strong trust. This will enable you to override or work through anxiety and draw them out with your communication, trust and leadership skills to listen or engage in a pleasant activity.

Some activities that may interest your dog when using counter conditioning is, playing fetch with the ball, playing with other friendly dogs or doing a treasure hunt or scent work. These activities work best with dogs that have a high play or scent drive. Doing intensive obedience work where your dog is required to focus (with huge rewards for good responses of course) is another beneficial activity.

#5. Distraction

Playing with a ball or eating a bone is the last thing a dog will think of when terrified. The difference between distraction and counter conditioning is one is skilfully applied and used to teach your dog to associate that when a particular noise event is occurring, its time to get the ball and play catch and have fun. The other is when you leave a ball out and hope that when your dog is most scared it will pick it up and play. As we like to say “Not Gonna Happen”!

#6. Parking them for the day

Sometimes owners have little choice but to take their dog to a friend or relative’s for the day. It simply isn’t possible for most people to be able to be at home with their dog during a storm, fireworks or renovations. If you are fortunate to have someone like this then you may have to avail yourself of this.

If you don’t, then consider doggy day care. Our centre (The Alpha Canine Centre) receives many dogs on days of thunderstorms or fireworks, or when the neighbours are renovating. 

While it is not a cure-all, day care has its uses. It doesn’t directly address the phobia, but it often prevents it from getting worse.

Many an owner has been surprised to hear that their dog was perfectly fine and non-responsive to a storm while in for day care because they are well looked after and engaged in healthy activities, when at home they would be climbing the walls.

#6. Swaddling and pressure


The Thundershirt is based on the principle of swaddling. Human babies feel safe and settled when swaddled and they can’t flail about. Some dogs do too. Unfortunately I haven’t seen resounding results with the Thundershirt and I think it is best applied with the comfortable confinement technique below.

It is important when your dog is stressed not to give your dog anything they perceive as a reward. Generally speaking this means pats and praise are out. However some types of contact like TTouch or acupressure points (without the praise/attention) have a soothing and calming effect.

#7. Use comfortable confinement



Of all the techniques I’ve seen and used, this one hands down consistently gets the best results. 
Many describe how their dog tries to gain access to a dark and confined space such as under the house, in a closet, under a desk, under the house on in the chicken coop, because dogs feel safe and secure in this type of space.


Many dogs when out in the open will become more worked up, yet when confined to a crate will settle enough to lay down or even sleep. Comfortable confinement helps to arrest the pattern of escalation, while giving a sense of security.

RENEE'S SAGE BEHAVIOUR ADVICE FOR NOISE EVENT PHOBIAS...


If you want to use this technique you will need an area that they cannot destroy, it will need to be small and confined and you will need to make it cosy and dark. While it has the some of the drawbacks of other techniques in that it takes time and persistence and you need to be there with your dog, if you are able to, it will more than likely yield results.

Step 1 - When your dog is showing signs of agitation, take them to the crate. Close it and cover it over and allow your dog time to settle.* If your dog is not used to being put in a crate or confined space don’t wait until a noise event to be the first! Do some training beforehand.

Step 2 – Continue this step (which may be over the course of several noise events) until you see they can go to their crate or confined space and relax.

Step 3
– After your dog has learned to settle, now you can try opening the door (but wait some time after they have settled). Remain close so that if they exit and they quickly show signs of distress (or ramp it up again) you can put them back in to settle again, and close the door again. You want to show and teach your dog that there IS somewhere to go to relax and escape the terrors of the storm. 



Step 4 - Over time if you have been consistent enough with this, your dog will begin to look for their space and take themself there. Leave the door open for them to go in. If they leave the confined space and begin to get worked up or stressed, walk them back to the crate (calmly and without attention rewards like praise), but leave the door open and monitor them that they don’t try to leave quickly. They should only leave the confined space voluntarily when they are in a calmed state.

Step 5 - If your dog is doing this regularly and is less stressed by the storm, you can look at doing some counter conditioning such as engaging with balls and toys or some other activity like training– but keep these sessions brief to begin with and at the first sign of stress, place them back in the crate. You should notice over time that they can increase their time out of the crate without becoming stressed.

*A small warning - there are some dogs that will try and break out of even a crate.



Renee Visentin Veterinary Nurse and Dog Trainer
Renee Visentin began training with Alpha Dog Training in 1998. She is trained as a Veterinary Nurse, has held over 3000 puppy classes and has worked as a kennel/dog handler and groomer. 
Since 1999 Renee has provided behaviour training services for clients, vets, shelters and rescue organisations. She also fosters difficult dogs to re-home for rescue organisations.

Renee is working as a senior professional trainer at Alpha Dog Training and is co-owner of the Alpha Canine Centre. She developed a number of behaviour saving protocols for the treatment of very difficult behaviours.
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