You know dogs have a keener sense of hearing than we do. What you may not know is that some are extra sensitive to sound and can develop fearful behavior because of it.
Karen adopted Penny from her local shelter. Sensitive to every sound, the shepherd mix was almost too fearful to go for walks. Determined to find a way to help Penny overcome her sound phobia, Karen first consulted her veterinarian to check for any medical issues. The next stop was a veterinary behaviorist, who used desensitization and behavior modification to help Penny regain confidence and generally overcome her fear of noises.
Fear responses to sound
Sound sensitivity, though more common in herding breeds such as German shepherds, border collies and Labradors, can affect any dog at any age. Think of the terrier mix who hides cowering under the coffee table during a thunderstorm, or the poodle who gets the jitters every time a transport truck rumbles by.
A new study has gained insight into how domestic dogs react to noises. “Our results suggest that the characteristics of dogs, their early environment, and exposure to specific noises are involved in the development of fear responses to noises,” says Dr. Rachel Casey, who led the study at the School of Veterinary Sciences, University of Bristol.
Dr. Casey says that almost half the people interviewed reported their dogs showed at least one behavioral sign of typical fear when exposed to noises such as fireworks, thunder, and gunshots, even though only a quarter reported their dogs were fearful of noises. The most commonly reported behavioral responses included vocalizing, trembling, shaking, hiding and seeking people. Fear responses to loud noises from fireworks, gunshots and thunder appear to commonly co-occur, suggesting generalization between these stimuli. Interestingly, many responses to less salient sounds, such as traffic and TV noises, apparently co-occurred with other signs of fear or anxiety; but responses to fireworks, gunshots and thunder did not commonly co-occur with separation-related behavior or behaviors linked to fear or anxiety.
The study concluded that fear responses to less important noises (TV, traffic) probably reflect fearful personality characteristics (as with Penny and the truck-hating poodle), while responses to very significant noises (gunshots, thunder, fireworks), may reflect specific exposures and experiences.
Desensitization — start young
“Exposure to sounds early in life, especially those a dog is likely to encounter as an adult, is an important part of socialization,” says veterinarian Dr. Monique Udell, assistant professor of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University. “Think of humans who have grown up in the city versus those who have grown up in the country – traffic sounds at night are often less disruptive to the former than the latter. Puppies that have the opportunity to experience…sounds that might otherwise be frightening to them as adults, might indeed fare better in some cases, especially if there are other adult dogs or humans around who show either little reaction, or a positive one, to those sounds. However, I think there is still a lot of research to be done on the conditions in which these general predictions hold true, and the situations in which they might not, and to what degree.”
Veterinarian Dr. Kathryn Lord teaches courses in animal behavior and has spent thousands of hours observing hand-reared puppies and wolves. She began to consider how early life experiences contribute to sound sensitivity. “Dogs’ ears open around three weeks of age,” she says. “At that point they have little or no fear of novelty. So, this is a good time to start introducing them to sounds. Sounds they hear at this point, up through eight weeks, will not be frightening later. Fear increases as they approach eight weeks, so caution should be taken the closer they get to this age. It is best to introduce novel sounds when pups are in a comfortable and familiar place. Many sound phobias start from bad experiences with novel sounds. If dogs are familiar with a variety of sounds, they are less likely to develop phobias down the road.”
Other treatment options
Desensitization and counter-conditioning can help restore a sound-sensitive dog’s confidence, especially during fireworks or storms. Basically, it involves exposing the dog to the upsetting noise in gradually increasing increments, while providing him with positive reinforcements, to help him eventually lose his anxiety towards the noise and associate it with something less negative and fearful. Victoria Stilwell’s Canine Noise Phobia Series is specifically designed to reduce and prevent noise phobias and anxiety in dogs.
Wraps and shirts that are especially designed to calm fearful dogs can also be used to alleviate sound sensitivity, including phobias to storms and other loud noises. The Anxiety Wrap, for example, applies pressure to certain calming acupressure points on the dog’s neck, chest, belly, shoulders, mid-section, and hindquarters.
Thanks to Penny’s treatment, she’s now able to accompany Karen on long walks and no longer panics when she encounters a loud, unexpected or unfamiliar noise. It took a while, but she’s now a happy and well-adjusted dog who enjoys life to the max.