When I was a child growing up on the East Coast we rescued a cute little Yorkie/Silky dog named Cherry. I have fond memories of Cherry, but one thing that always seemed to bother her were thunderstorms. She would shake and hide in the bathtub during storms. I always felt bad for her but never knew what to do. Years later after having completed veterinary school and becoming a Board-Certified Veterinary Behaviorist I now know that there is a lot we can do to help dogs like Cherry.
Fortunately for us here in California we have minimal thunderstorms, but noise phobia (which can be a component of thunderstorm phobia) can happen anywhere and occurs virtually everywhere on New Year’s Eve and July 4th. Common triggers for noise phobia include fireworks, cars backfiring, gun shots, smoke alarms, and clicking noises (ie the heater or air conditioner turning on). Dogs with noise phobia may pant, pace, shake, hide, salivate, follow their owners, and even harm themselves trying to escape from their house/yard. However, don’t be fooled by dogs that are abnormally still and quiet during these events as dogs that exhibit “non-behavior” may also be anxious.
As it is difficult to modify problem behaviors when the noise trigger cannot be avoided it is best to start behavior modification well before unavoidable noises occur (such as in October rather than December in preparation for New Year’s Eve). When noise triggers cannot be avoided we use anti-anxiety medications or supplements. Short-acting medications may help relieve anxiety during unavoidable noises whereas long-term anti-anxiety medications facilitate behavior modification and may be used when noises are regular and unavoidable. Sedatives and tranquilizers are not usually an appropriate first choice medication as they do not actually treat anxiety and in some cases people report that they are more noise sensitive while taking certain sedatives. Essentially, the pet is sedated and does not display anxiety on the outside, but is extremely anxious on the inside. Before medications are used I always recommend that blood work is checked since these medications are metabolized by the liver and kidneys.
After a trip to your veterinarian to rule out any medical problems, such as pain, that could be making the pet more sensitive to noises, the treatment for noise phobia consists of several steps. The first is avoiding noise triggers as much as possible so that the pet does not continue to experience the fear/panic emotional response. Often, a command-response-reward program (commonly referred to as “Nothing in Life is Free”) is recommended to decrease any attention-seeking component of the behavior, create more structure and predictability for the pet, and increase the pet’s responsiveness to commands. The “meat and potatoes” of the plan consists of systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC), the primary technique we use to change the pet’s emotional response to scary noises. Desensitization involves introducing the pet to the noise trigger at elicits fear at so low of a level (volume) that the pet is calm and relaxed. Over time the noise is made louder, all the while staying below the dog’s threshold for fear and panic. Counter-conditioning is changing the pet’s emotional response to the noise trigger by associating it with something positive, such as a favorite treat or activity (ie playing fetch with a tennis ball). A head collar, such as a Gentle Leader ®, may be suggested for better control of the pet during DS/CC. Focus commands including eye contact and hand target commands may also be taught in preparation for DS/CC.
With some hard work and dedication noise phobias can be successfully managed and treated using behavior modification along with anti-anxiety medications in certain cases. For more information and to develop an individualized treatment plan for your pet please contact a Veterinary Behaviorist near you (dacvb.org)!
Dr. Meredith Stepita, DVM, DACVB (Veterinary Behaviorist)