Saturday, July 23, 2011

Noise Phobia in Dogs

Noise phobia is an excessive fear of a sound that results in severe anxiety and panicky behavior It’s an irrational, intense and persistent fear response that can develop at any age and in any dog breed.

My dog Casey was always mellow when it came to sounds until she’d been around fireworks multiple times. I was never sure what triggered her fear exactly as she was fine the first few times. Even if the fireworks were popping off in the distance she would become inconsolable when outdoors. Her body would go stiff, she’d tremble and pull on the leash in a panic and scrabble to get home scratching and clawing her nails on the sidewalk. I could not pick her up to comfort her as she’d squirm and wriggle and scratch me to get down and head home as fast as possible. After experiencing this kind of fear twice, I ensured we were not out during Vancouver’s fireworks nights and did my best to keep her inside around Halloween.

Dog psychologists have explained to me that, “Trying to escape from the noise that is agitating them, a dog's normal instinct is to seek shelter to avoid danger.” But things can go awry when dogs overreact to sounds that don’t actually represent danger.

Characteristic behavior can include, but may not be limited to, hiding, urinating, defecating, chewing, drooling, panting, pacing, trembling, shaking, and barking. A fearful dog might seek out his human family; try to escape the noise by jumping through windows or chewing through walls, and running away. We’ve all heard the sad tales of dogs and cats disappearing from their yard on fireworks nights because of their sheer panic.

The most common causes of noise phobia are definitely fireworks and thunderstorms, but dogs may develop a fear of any sound no matter how inconsequential. Even a squeaky door being opened, use of a fly swatter, pots and pans banging, or a fan being turned on, can provoke a reaction from a noise-phobic dog. And, the more exposure a dog has to a frightening noise, the more intense his phobic response is likely to become.

Veterinarians recommend a health check-up for dogs experiencing a noticeable change in behavior over noise that is truly minimal. There are several medical conditions that could aggravate a dog’s anxious and panicky behavior that need to be ruled out first. If your vet determines that your dog has a behavior problem, ask your veterinarian if he/she has a PhD in animal behavior. If not, contact a board certified veterinary behaviorist or dog psychologist in your area.

Effective treatment for dogs prone to flee from fearful sounds can be as simple as offering them a comforting space like a pet crate covered with a heavy blanket as a partial sound barrier, or making a bed in the bottom of your closet. The most effective cure for my dog’s anxiety was just that: being in her crate, tucked away safe and sound out of what she perceived as harm’s way. Now that she is almost 16 years old and completely deaf, we no longer experience any of this anxiety over noise. If your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, keep your dog inside and turn on an appliance or television, or play music to override the noise.

Dogs are pack animals and look to you, the pack leader, for guidance and reassurance. Adopt an easy-going manner and remain calm in the face of your dog’s fear and anxiety and you will be surprised at how much more relaxed they will become. Lead your pack and that alone will be the start to much needed comfort.

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