If this summer’s dramatic thunderstorms have seen your dog trembling in terror behind the sofa, you’ll know just how distressing noise phobias can be. What can you do to help them overcome their fears?
Posted: 03 July 2020
Summer lightning often comes as a bit of a surprise. After sweltering days of endless sunshine, the hot, heavy air suddenly cools and then splinters with a thunderous crash. And, while unexpected loud noises are enough to make both humans and animals jump, for dogs with noise sensitivities, it can become just too much to cope with.
Writing in theVet Times , clinical veterinary nurse Emma Gerrard explains it like this: “Many animals show a fear response to loud noises such as fireworks. This may be a normal response to abnormally loud sounds or a developing phobia. These fear responses may be temporary and decrease as the animal gets used to the noise. However, a significant proportion of individuals will become ‘sensitised’, where the response will increase with repeated exposure.”
So when does fear become a phobia? Emma says: “Fear is apprehension of a stimulus, object or event; is a normal, adaptive response essential for survival and, in the short term, healthy. Most fear is learned and can be unlearned with gradual exposure, counter-conditioning and other strategies. In contrast, phobias are learned fear reactions that are persistent over a period of time and are consistent and irrational, rather than adaptive.”
Animal charity PDSA advises: “Storms, fireworks, even the hoover – there are lots of things that our dogs might be afraid of that make them anxious. It’s important to help them as soon as possible and teach them that these things aren’t scary and are a normal part of everyday life. If your dog is afraid of something, it can be difficult to know how to help. A phobia is usually a behavioural issue, but it’s best to take your dog to the vet in the first instance to rule out any medical reasons. They can give you some tips to help your dog start to get over their worries and may refer your dog to an accredited behaviourist to begin a desensitisation programme.”
Put simply, de-sensitising is a way of training your dog to be OK with the things that scare them. PDSA recommends: “Ideally, this is something that should start as a puppy when you socialise them so they grow up being used to everyday sounds. If you’ve adopted an adult dog, it might be that they have never got used to these sounds. You’ll need to start de-sensitising them as soon as you can, especially if you find out they have a phobia.”
1. Introduce some sound therapy
Dogs Trust have partnered with vets Sarah Heath and Jon Bowen to offer their range of sound-based treatment Sounds Scary programmes for free. The downloads available, together with corresponding how-to-guides, contain a collection of specifically recorded sounds, including domestic noises, traffic, fireworks and thunder. Sounds Scary is not only backed by years of clinical experience, it is also scientifically proven to be safe, effective and easy to use. Start with the volume very low and praise and reward your dog for calm behaviour. Over the course of several months you can gradually increase the volume by small amounts each time you play the chosen tracks, praising calm behaviour. If your dog becomes stressed, it’s best to restart the process, building confidence as you go. Use lots of positive interaction such as playing with your dog, giving them their food or treats while the sound is playing. Find out more about Sounds Scary here >>
2. Dial down the fear of the new
PDSA advises: “Introduce new things slowly. Something noisy can surprise your dog if they aren’t used to it, so try to introduce new sounds and experiences to them as slowly as possible. With storms and fireworks, your dog may get scared of the sounds and the light. Close your curtains and make sure they have somewhere to hide. It might be worth building them a den to help them feel safe. You can use TV or leave a radio on to help distract your dog and drown out the sounds. Always make new things a positive experience. Make sure your dog sees new things and experiences as really positive. Praise them and keep your tone happy. This will help them develop confidence as new things won’t scare them as much.”
3. Keep calm and carry on
For dogs, it’s important that their human remains calm. PDSA says: “The more worried you get, the more worried your dog is likely to get. If they are showing signs of stress and being afraid, stay as calm as possible as this will help them feel more at ease. Your dog might be worried at first, so let them hide if they need to and give them lots of praise once they’re calm.”
4. Apply gentle pressure
Pressure wraps have a calming effect on some dogs. The idea was developed in the USA by Phil Blizzard for his dog Dosi, who was terrified by thunderstorms and fireworks. After a friend recommended trying a snug wrap – rather like swaddling a baby – Phil wrapped his pet in an old t-shirt secured with packing tape to create mild pressure. Dosi calmed almost immediately, which led to the development of the Thundershirt .
5. Try pheromone therapy
Ask your vet about ADAPTIL – Dog Appeasing Pheromone. This is a scent which you can’t smell that comes in a plug-in diffuser, spray or collar that can comfort your dog and help him cope with his fears. Pet Remedy is another calming product.
6. Investigate medical options
For dogs with very severe fears there are now several drugs available which reduce anxiety levels. Your vet will be able to advise you if they are suitable for your dog:
Emma Gerrard advises: “Noise-related fears and phobias can be traumatic for both pet and owner. Veterinary nurses are ideally placed to give advice and support on how best to cope with what can be a traumatic event for everyone involved. They can help by ensuring clients with either a new puppy or a senior pet are aware of fears and phobias, the signs and the various treatments options.”
Please note, that due to coronavirus restrictions, veterinary practices are abiding by set protocols, in line with national guidelines from the British Veterinary Association and the Government. Urgent cases and emergencies will still be treated – but check with your local practice about the procedures they have in place to keep people, as well as animals, safe.
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Sources: vettimes.co.uk, pdsa.org.uk, bluecross.org.uk