Those who own dogs suffering from noise phobias know for a fact how miserable life can be for their dogs when they are exposed to the noises they fear. Noise sensitivity affects a large percentage of dogs; it’s estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of dog owners have a dog who is ‘‘scared’’ of some sort of noise (1,2). The most common feared noises are fireworks, thunderstorms and gun shots, but often simple household noises such as a squeaky door, vacuum cleaner, loud voices or a car door can elicit fearful responses. How do dogs develop though noise sensitivities? It’s likely part genetic and part learned behavior and following are some possible causes for the acute onset of noise sensitivities in dogs according to research and studies.
A Lack of Habituation
If you ever moved to a new place nearby a railroad, you might have been unable to sleep the first few nights. Then, after some time, you may have reached a point where you hardly ever noticed the noise. In that case, it can be said that you habituated to the noise. Habituation is a process that takes place when you eventually stop responding to a stimulus after repeated exposure. It’s an adaptive behavior, which means it’s productive since it helps conserve energy by not reacting to stimuli that are non-threatening and therefore no longer biologically relevant.
In dogs, we can see habituation take place in gun dogs. After startling at the noise of gun shots, repeated exposure may cause them to gradually habituate and their startle reaction decreases. Iimura and colleagues (4) found that when puppies younger than 6 months of age were exposed to ﬁreworks, engine noises, door bangs, party poppers, vacuum cleaners, and loud voices, this exposure seemed to have a protective effect, helping the puppies habituate easier in future encounters later in life. In dogs who are fearful of noises, habituation instead doesn’t take place. Instead of recognizing a novel noise as normal through repeated exposure, the brain of a noise-phobic dog categorizes it as something life threatening.
“A fear response may include perfectly normal fearful behaviors but in a context in which they’re inappropriate. For example, a dog retreating from a snake may exhibit both appropriate and adaptive behavior…but if a dog retreats from everything that moves, that constitutes an abnormal behavior that’s maladaptive.”~ Karen Overall, veterinary behaviorist”
Take-home message: It’s important to get puppies used to noises at a young age! A study by Appleby and colleagues (6), found that lack of early exposure to an urban environment (presumably including exposure to engine noises) resulted in adult dogs who were more likely to show avoidance behaviors.
A Matter of Sensitization
While habituation is the process where affected dogs get used to repeated exposure to certain noises, in sensitization the opposite occurs, repeated exposure to noises exert a cumulative effect overtime, increasing the dog’s anxiety and fearful responses to the noise. Dogs who develop fear of thunder, often do so gradually rather than overnight. Iiumura’s studies found that 61 percent of dogs developed their fear over an extended period of time. The same late onset pattern appeared to take place with other dogs’ sensitivities to noises such as engine noises and fireworks. Interestingly, it seems that the way the noise is presented has an impact on the dog. Noises that appear in bouts and are separated by brief moments of quiet, seem to play a major role in sensitization.
“Sensitization—a noise bothers the dog more and more over time, causing it to be more sensitive to it rather than learning to ignore it.”~Sara Bennett, veterinary behaviorist
Take-home message: Nip the behavior in the bud before it has a chance to develop and spread like wildfire! Best to address the problem and seek help from a professional, before the fear is allowed to put roots and establishes overtime. Look for a professional specializing in positive, gentle behavior modification, harsh, aversion-based methods only make the fear worse!
Stressed Induced Dishabituation
Even when a dog habituates to a noise, there is no certainty that a noise sensitivity will not emerge. When dogs undergo stress, their bodies are bombarded by the effects of hormones that the adrenal glands secrete and put them in an alerted state. If during this moment of stress, dogs are exposed to loud noises, these may result in fear responses and the onset of noise sensitivity overtime. What happens is, since the dog is stressed, he is not able to cope with the noise as he would if he was in a relaxed state. For sake of comparison, the process is somewhat similar to what happens when one’s immune system is lower. With the body’s defense system in a vulnerable state, a person is therefore more likely to get a cold than when he is in a healthier state.
The take-home message: It’s important to manage a dog’s stress and address its triggers, to prevent building fertile grounds for noise sensitivities.
Underlying Medical Conditions
Sometimes dogs may be sick or in pain, and their pain and discomfort may be associated with sounds, explains veterinarian Dr. Wally. The exact dynamics may not be clear: is the dog associating the noises with his pain, or is his pain making him more susceptible to being bothered by the noises?
Older dogs seem to be more prone to develop sound sensitivities as they age. Research suggests that each additional year of a dog’s life is subject to a 3.4% increase in the likelihood that the dog would react fearfully to exposure to loud noises.
The take-home message: have your dog see your vet for a full physical and neurological exam. Keep in consideration that as dogs age they become more susceptible to the negative effects of loud noises.
The Effect of Social Transmission
Sometimes, dogs learn to fear a noise because they are exposed to other dogs who react fearfully to it. Iimura’s studies found that 22.6 percent out of 283 owners of noise- sensitive dogs, noticed that one of their dogs had learned to react fearfully through exposure to another noise-sensitive dog. As social animals, it’s not surprising that dogs are easily influenced from one another. This phenomenon can often be seen in dogs who have lived in a yard and cared less about the noise of person driving by with a motorcycle. Then, a new neighbor moves in and his dog rushes to the fence and barks when the motorcyclist drives by. Soon, the dog who cared less about this noise, starts gradually becoming more and more reactive. He might not necessarily bark like the other dog, but he may rush out of the yard to see what the commotion is all about. Even among people, this can be seen. How would you react if a person suddenly rushes out of the office with a scared look on his face? Most likely, an adrenaline rush will hit you. Panic is easily contagious and can spread like wild fire in emergency situations.
Take-home message: if feasible, protect your dog from being influenced from other fearful dogs. There are risks that your dog will become fearful than the other way around (the fearful dog learning from your dog to become more confident.)
The Bottom Line
Since a dog’s brain is always in a learning state, any dog can become sensitive to noises given the right circumstances. It’s important to therefore be aware of the dynamics behind the onset of noise sensitivities so to prevent paving the path for them to establish and take over. Just as an immune system must be kept strong to fend of diseases, a dog’s mental well-being deserves the same attention.
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- Paolo Mongillo, Elisa Pitteri, Paolo Carnier, Gianfranco Gabai, Serena Adamelli, Lieta Marinelli (2013). Does the attachment system towards owners change in aged dogs? Physiology and Behavior, 120, 64 – 69.
- Dvm360l Canine noise aversion: The sound and the worry, retrieved from the web on September 11th, 2016