Advice on anmials: Dogs

Dogs: Helping dogs with sound phobias, and fear of fireworks

Sound phobias are an over-reaction to certain sounds, especially gunshots, fireworks, and thunder. Many dogs will bark at loud noises. This is not necessarily sound phobia, and may be a normal reaction to something scary.

Fear of fireworks is very common, and the term covers a range of reactions. If you can get the dog to come to you and lie down quietly by your side, despite the noises that worry him, then he is probably not sound-phobic. You may need very tasty food treats to reinforce the commands, but this is a less serious fear of fireworks than that shown by dogs that shake with fear, and show no interest in the tastiest treat. Seriously sound-phobic dogs often bolt for a place they consider safe. This can be a problem if you are walking a dog off the lead, and he bolts for home, on a route that crosses busy roads!

Border collies are particularly prone to sound phobias, which is not surprising when you consider that they are sensitive enough to sound to respond to a shepherd two fields away. Curiously, many collies can be impervious to loud noises while they are working sheep, but show fear once they stop working. This collie ability to focus on the task in hand and cut out extraneous sounds can be a great help for owners. It means that keeping a collie occupied during walks is one way of keeping him with you, and reducing the risk of his bolting at loud noises. Simply showing a collie a ball can be enough to dispel fear of bangs.

All dogs, not just collies, benefit from being kept busy during walks. It helps them to focus on their owners, rather than being distracted by screaming children, motorbikes, and other hazards, as well as bangs. Giving dogs tasks that involve them returning to you, helps to reinforce their recall. It is, of course, safer to keep the dog on a lead if his recall is not solid, and especially if he is also sound-phobic. You may also need to vary your dog-walking patterns at time when gunshot or fireworks are common, and walk the dog in places that are likely to be quieter.

Many dogs with sound phobias can be distracted from their fear by mention of something that interests them, as soon as they start to look worried at a possible bang. If you say the name of one of their canine or human friends, or mention an activity that they enjoy doing, the dog may look at you with interest, forgetting the worrisome bang in the distance. Obviously this is less likely to work when the dog has just heard a succession of earth-shattering bangs, but it can work to help ward off the onset of a session of sound-induced anxiety, when the dog has heard a fairly quiet worrisome noise.

Spooked dogs may stop dead and refuse to move when they are on the lead. Again, giving them something to do can help. A dog lying down and unwilling to budge is effectively doing a 'stay', so try commanding the dog to stay, which means that he is now obeying you, and then commanding him to come to you. This ploy can allow you to shift the dog's perceptions, and get him moving again.

Titbits can help in distracting dogs that are very mildly spooked, e.g. you can call the dog to you once he starts to look spooked, and reward him for coming with a titbit, but seriously spooked dogs tend to refuse food, and owners of less spooked dogs also need be be careful that they are not rewarding dogs for showing fear! The promise of very interesting activities can be a far more potent way of distracting the dog than food.

Sometimes dogs that get spooked on walks can be helped by walking with calm canine companions. This usually works best if the companion is a large, calm, well-behaved older dog which has never shown fear of fireworks or other loud noises. However, dogs can also pick up fears from each other, so it is important to pick a walking companion that your dog sees as a natural leader, rather than a young and impressionable companion that usually looks to your dog for leadership.

What can be done for dogs at home during storms and firework sessions? Closing doors and windows, and pulling curtains helps, by cutting out as much outside noise as possible. You may also want to turn on the TV or radio, or put on a music CD. Wildlife movies can distract some dogs from loud noises outside. Generally, it can help dogs upset by storms or fireworks to add sounds that the dogs are used to, in order to mask the scary sounds, though if there is a storm nearby it may be safer to keep your electrical equipment turned off.

Some dogs are content just to lie by your side for safety, so it may be enough to call your dog to you, and ask him to settle. Your being calm will help your dog, so just sitting and reading, with your dog by your side can be enough for many dogs. It may be tempting to make a big fuss of the dog, saying ‘there, there, poor little thing’, but that sends a message that there really is something scary in the bangs. A normal, ‘hello, nice to have you here by my side’ cuddle, as a reward for his coming when called, is more helpful than a big fuss.

Dogs benefit from a safe place to go to when they feel spooked, somewhere they can use whether or not you are around. Your dog may have already chosen his safe places in the house, behind a chair, or the sofa, for example. If it is a convenient place, and easy for him to get to, you could just make it more comfortable and secure. Crates can be useful as boltholes, and covering a crate with a blanket can make it feel safer for the dog. If your dog hasn't’t chosen a safe place, or the place he has chosen is not convenient, then it’s worth looking round your home for somewhere you would like your dog to go to when he is spooked. You can train him to go to his bolt hole on command by throwing titbits into it when he is relaxed, and giving a command, such as ‘go to bed’, or ‘in your place’, using the same words every time you want him to go to his place. He may automatically go to his bolt-hole when stressed by sound. On the other hand, he may rush round barking frantically when thunder or fireworks start, and you may need to use your ´go to bed´ command to remind him to go to his bolt-hole, and give him more training later, when he is relaxed.

Giving a dog a bolt-hole helps to reduce his stress level, so long as he is left alone. It is worth explaining to any children in the household that the dog needs to be left in peace when he is in his safe place, and that they should not try to drag him out! No-one likes to be dragged out of bed by force, and both dogs and humans may protest. And if the dog is in his safe place because he is stressed, then shouting at him to come out will increase his stress level. Trying to grab his collar to pull him out of his safe place may encourage him to bite as a way of defending himself. He can’t back off any further, so may growl and snap - fight or flight are natural animal responses to danger, and a dog that has fled to his safe place may well fight if flight is impossible.

So what can you do if a dog has found himself a bolt-hole that is inconvenient to you, or if you are trying to get him to go for a walk before you go to work, and he has gone to ground, and is deaf to your calls? Obviously, working hard on recall at home when he is relaxed is a good long-term strategy, as is making early morning walks fun, by interacting with him when you are out. There are also little ploys that often work in the short term, as a way of getting him to emerge, such as playing a game on your own that he normally likes playing with you, and ignoring him. Bouncing a ball and catching it where he can see you, may encourage him to emerge. Other ploys include telling him to stay, and then to come to you, as with dogs that lie down on walks. If all else fails it is usually better just to leave the dog be, until he has calmed down.

What kind of long-term treatment are available for tackling fear of fireworks and of other loud noises? Some owners have reported success with playing dogs sound recordings of bangs, gradually increasing the sound level each time, and at the same time as the sound is played, playing games with the dog with food treats. The dog becomes less sensitive to the sound through hearing it often, and at levels that the dog can handle. The associations of games and treats with the sound can also shift the dog´s perceptions of the sound, which the dog comes to see as linked to something good, rather than being worrisome.

This treatment can work with some dogs, though in real life, it is not always possible to control what the dog hears. If, after a lot of careful CD playing at controlled levels, the dog suddenly hears a succession of extremely loud bangs from fireworks that kids have let off outside your window, bangs loud enough to make the house shudder, it can undo a lot of progress! It is still worth persevering if your dog seems to be improving with CD training, even though the occasional setback is inevitable.

Fireworks are a particular problem in the UK, and many dogs that are unconcerned about bangs most of the year can become especially sensitive to any loud noise during the firework season. Owners have the advantage of knowing beforehand that the firework season is coming up, whereas for many dogs, the world seems to have become a much more scary place. If your dog tends to be sound-phobic, it is worth trying Dog Appeasing Pheromones, which are geared to calming dogs and making them feel more secure. They mimic pheromones given off by lactating bitches, that help puppies feel safe and contented. Dog Appeasing Pheromones can be useful in reducing stress from all sources, such as separation anxiety, and have been used successfully to reduce sound phobias in many dogs. Research reported in Veterinary Record, the UK veterinarians´ journal, found that both DAP and using CD recordings of noises could help dogs. Both DAP and CDs had some beneficial effect when used alone, but were more effective when used together.

There are, then, a number of ways to help dogs with sound phobias, and they tend to be more effective when used together. It is especially important to try to tackle this problem if you have more than one dog, or plan to take on another dog, because, while dogs can calm each other, they can also sometimes learn bad behaviour from each other, and if there is anything worse than one dog rushing round and barking at storms or fireworks, it is having a house full of them. Each dog in a multi-dog household may have a different reaction, so owners need to assess how serious the worry may be for each individual dog, and tackle it accordingly. One dog may benefit from treatment with DAP and CDs, as well as a bolt-hole for emergencies, while it may be possible to calm another with a simple command to come to you and lie by your side. And if you are worried by storms yourself, maybe sound recordings of storms could help you too, perhaps used together with chocolate treats!


D.S. Mills et al
Retrospective analysis of the treatment of firework fears in dogs

Veterinary Record vol 153 no 18, November 1 2003

Useful resources: Bach flower remedies, crates, D.A.P. diffusers, herbal supplements, scary noises cd and Serene-um calming tablets.