Although there is not much we can do about certain sudden loud noises, like lightning during a thunderstorm, there are ways to prepare our dogs from an early age to cope in these situations. Unfortunately, some dogs will always struggle with loud noises, but you can make it easier for them, to a certain degree. Here are a few things that you can do…
- During a puppy’s critical socialisation period, he should be exposed to a multitude of different noises at a low level – sounds that we may not even notice anymore, because we’re used to them. The sound may initially elicit a startled response. As long as nothing bad happens, puppies with good coping skills will bounce back and recover from the ‘surprise noise’ within seconds. Repeated exposure to the noise will desensitise the pup – in other words, the noise eventually becomes ‘white noise’, as he learns to filter the sound out as being ‘unimportant’. Unless the experience is the sound of a predictor of good things (like a cookie jar) or bad things (like an employee with a noisy leaf blower – now both the employee and the leaf blower are scary).
- Some puppies are oversensitive to new noises. This could be due to genetics, personality and early experiences, or lack thereof.
- If you see early signs of sound sensitivity, have your vet examine your dog to rule out any possible medical reasons. Some medical conditions, such as gastrointestinal problems or cognitive dysfunction, have been associated with noise aversion.
- Overly sound-sensitive puppies would require a lot of desensitisation exercises.
- Expose puppies to noises initially at a very low level, according to your individual puppy’s response. Each puppy is different. Be pro-active, not reactive. Sound-sensitive dogs usually get worse, not better.
- Don’t assume that your puppy will be fine next year if he didn’t show any fear toward thunderstorms or fireworks this year. It is common for dogs to develop fear of these events later on.
- Novel noises that we take for granted, but can be scary to a puppy, include:
- kitchen appliances
- vacuum cleaners
- lawnmowers and blowers
- neighbours in their yards
- kids shouting
- babies crying
- wind and thunder
- a car backfiring
- Have a checklist of different noises and expose your puppy to individual sounds over time, pairing the noise with something that your puppy thoroughly enjoys, such a game or food.
- Care should be taken with overly sensitive puppies. Pairing ‘good stuff’ with a sound usually teaches a puppy that particular sound is a predictor that ‘good things’ are about the happen. For example, the vacuum cleaner brings chicken. However, if the sound is too scary for your puppy, you could inadvertently ‘poison’ the food, so that food in this context has been conditioned to mean ‘bad stuff’.
- Before problems develop, purchase a puppy CD with different sounds, play this at a low level while giving your puppy fun things to do, such as playing with him or giving him food. This is called counterconditioning. Gradually increasing the volume over time is known as systematic desensitisation.
There are commercially sold CDs of thunderstorms and fireworks. Of course, this cannot mimic barometer pressure, ozone smell and electrostatic charges, but it is a start.
- Avoid ‘flooding’ the puppy – this means exposing an animal to a stimulus it already perceives as frightening, in the hope that he will ‘get used to it’. This is inhumane and often makes matters worse.
- The onset of behaviour changes and noise sensitivity in an older dog could be indicative of an underlying medical reason. Consult your veterinarian for a full medical examination, giving details of the new behavioural changes.
- An undiagnosed painful condition could be exacerbated when a dog tenses up in response to a startling sound. Sound-sensitive dogs should be assessed regularly by their veterinarian.
- Prevention is better than cure. Noise phobia can potentially have very serious consequences –like fleeing the home or causing injury while trying to escape a noise. Physical injury and psychological trauma are equally damaging.
- Don’t ignore a small problem. Watch out for early signs of discomfort and address these noises with systematic desensitisation and counterconditioning.
How to handle thunderstorms or fireworks
- Control the environment as much as you can. Provide safe spaces for your dog to retreat to – areas where external sounds such as thunder and fireworks would be muffled – like keeping him indoors instead of in an outdoor kennel. We are not looking to confine the pup, but rather to create free access to hiding spaces. Padding the den with pillows is a useful way to muffle external sounds, while closed curtains block out flashes of lightning.
- Play a CD or leave the radio on to mask the external sounds. Run household appliances that your dog is familiar with, such as the washing machine.
- Familiar and calming smells can be provided – there are several calming products on the market, such as calming collars, sprays or diffusers.
- Use distraction strategies, like giving your dog a food puzzle or a safe chew or playing games with him during storms.
- Some storm-phobic dogs respond well to body pressure jackets. These are close-fitting garments known as thunder shirts, anxiety wraps or storm defenders. They give dogs a sense of comfort.
- Exercise your dog before an event you know is going to create a lot of noise, like on New Year’s Eve. A long, slow ‘sniff’ walk would be more beneficial than a high-adrenalin ball game.
Exercise increases serotonin in the brain, which decreases anxiety and plays a part in improving coping skills when stressed.
- In severe cases, consult your vet about medication to reduce the anxiety.
- Your demeanour will influence your dog. Remain calm and supportive. Don’t interact with him using a high-pitched, excited voice or sad, consoling tones. Be conscious of being content and calm.
- Petting will either be comforting or make matters worse. Learn dog language! When your dog realises that his language works this will empower him and reduce anxiety.