Why do dogs develop noise phobias?
When your dog is first exposed to any new stimulus, whether it’s a flavoured treat, a walk to the beach, or fireworks, they begin to learn to associate that stimulus with either beneficial or consequential outcomes. After repeated exposure, these stimuli, your pets resulting behaviour, and even your response to this behaviour cement how your dog will react during and even leading up to these stimulus events in the future.
For example, the first time your dog is exposed to thunder there is a loud noise accompanied by flashing light and cold wet weather, a not all-together pleasant experience. As a result, they may cower, seek shelter, or vocalize. In response you may let them inside, comfort them etc. all of which are seen by your dog as a reward for their previous behaviour of cowering, seeking shelter, or vocalizing.
After repeated exposure to this stimulus, these behaviours and potentially phobias are cemented. Additionally, secondary fears may develop in response to specific cues associated with this first stimulus. These cues can include, visual, audio, smell, location, and your behaviour as an owner. The most obvious are the similar cues between thunder and fireworks.
It is not surprising that approximately 23% of dogs show some fearfulness to noise, and that those dogs fearful of noise were more likely to show other behavioural problems including separation anxiety. On top of all this, the fear response to noise tends to worsen as dogs age.
Read More: Tryptophan - what is it and how can it help my dog?
How can I help my dog overcome its fear?
There are a number of tips and tricks to help dogs suffering from noise phobia. Their success will vary based on the severity of your dog’s fearfulness, how long your dog has had it, and the amount of time and energy your able to give to the issue.
As with most illnesses and conditions, prevention is better than the cure. Recognising potential fearful behaviour and addressing it early is key. It is also vital to make sure your dog does not see your response to negative behaviour as a reward that would inadvertently encourage and reinforce this negative behaviour (including, patting, holding, etc.). At the same time, be sure not to punish them for fearful behaviour as this will just further their anxiety. Instead try to engage them in confidence-building behaviours they enjoy that you can then reward them for – such as playing with them, grooming them, walking them and anything else they may enjoy.
2. Anti-anxiety shirts and wraps
Anti-anxiety wraps and shirts have been advocated to help alleviate the anxiety associated with thunderstorms. The constant pressure applied by the garments is thought to comfort the dogs via the swaddling effect and acupressure. Trials have shown that after a period of 5 uses 89% of owners reported at least partially effective treatment of anxiety associated with storms.
3. Changing the environment
Some dogs respond well to a change of environment to reduce their anxiety. This maybe a matter of placing them in an area that reduces or minimises the noise associated with a storm. Or for crate-trained dogs, placing them in the small confines of their crate where they feel safe.
In extreme conditions a Veterinarian may administer medication to your dog that provides a sedative effect or anti-anxiety effect. Ideally these would always be used as a last resort.
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