By David Brooks MRCVS of Pet Insurance Expert.
Noise fears or phobias in dogs are among the most common of the behavioural problems, but are frequently ineffectively managed. They are most easily treated with early identification and intervention where possible.
So what are the signs to look out for?
- Increased restlessness, shaking or trembling
- Tucked tail, ears back or a crouched posture
- Destructiveness (e.g. chewing or scratching)
- Defecation (sometimes with diarrhea)
- Vocalisation (whining, howling, barking)
- Self-mutilation (e.g. nibbling at paws)
- Discharging anal glands
- Seeking shelter close to the owner
- Increased blink frequency
The problem with many of these signs is that they may be misinterpreted as being due to noise fear, when in fact they may be attention seeking. Owners who try to reassure their animals may also be encouraging more extreme behaviour through inadvertent reinforcement of that behaviour. Differentiation between a learned attention-seeking and genuinely fearful behaviour can be tricky, as can distinguishing between a separation-related problem and a coincidental noise-related one when the owner is away. Where the problem is associated with a high level of attention seeking, the behaviour must be addressed by encouraging the dog to be more independent.
Treatment of Noise Fears
This has two goals:
- Immediate management of when the threat is imminent (e.g. just before a fireworks event)
- The long term resolution of the problem
a) Short to Medium Term Measures
- Drugs, these may be useful in some cases but must only be used under veterinary supervision. They are most effective if given before the noise starts. Drugs should complement the advice below rather than be used as a substitute for it.
- Do not punish the dog. This will only reinforce that there is something to be afraid of.
- Do not make a fuss over the dog. This will reward the behaviour and therefore encourage it.
- Be jolly yourself, it will help counteract your dogs fear.
- Make sure your dog is kept in a safe and secure environment, so it cannot escape when a sudden noise occurs.
- Try using Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP, Ceva) to provide an emotionally secure environment.
- Consider blacking out one of the quietest rooms in the house when the fireworks season begins to create a secure retreat for the dog. Place toys in the room for the dog to play with.
- Put some music on, something with repetitive drumbeats is best. It need not be particularly loud, as long as there is a constant distracting beat to the music.
- Try to engage the dog in some form of active game during the noises.
- Pairing the fearful dog together with another non-fearful dog may help persuade the fearful dog that things are not so bad after all.
- Earplugs can be made by dampening a piece of cotton wool and squeezing out any excess water. The cotton wool is then rolled into a cylindrical shape and twisted into the dog’s ear as to pack the canal. The plug should be secure and firm, but not so tight as to irritate the dog. Remember to remove the plugs after the event.
b) Long Term Resolution
The aim here is to gradually desensitise the dog to sounds so that it no longer reacts with panic. To achieve this, recordings are available commercially. The idea is to start with sounds at a low intensity that resemble (but are not identical to) the problem stimulus, and gradually become more similar to the offending noise. A pheromone diffuser (Adaptil, Ceva) used during training may speed up the desensitisation process. The next stage involves encouraging a response to the stimulus which counters the problem behaviour, e.g. playing a game or a formal obedience command.
Drugs may be necessary during the desensitization process in problematic cases, but the long term aim must be to get the dog off all medication. The danger is that owners tend to rely on the drugs at the expense of the other aspects of the treatment regime.
The specific details of the desensitization programs used vary, but owners must be aware that effective treatment takes weeks if not months to complete successfully, even in relatively routine cases. Whilst a percentage of dogs will perceive recorded and live versions of the same sounds as very different noises, recording-based programs undoubtedly offer benefit in many cases. Current scientific thinking is that an improvement is possible in over 90% of animals with noise fears, though complete resolution is rare.
David Brooks MRCVS is part of the veterinarian team at Pet Insurance Expert, the most comprehensive resource on pet insurance in the UK. Learn about the different pet insurance options and find the best pet insurance for your pet.