At this time of year, there are a lot of things for dogs who are afraid of loud noises to be scared of. Fireworks, thunderstorms, even neighbors having loud outdoor parties can be terrifying for your furry companion. Dogs who are noise-phobic generally display behaviors such as panting, whining, drooling, pacing, shaking, accidents in the house, seeking attention, and sometimes destructiveness. In some severe cases, dogs resort to running and escaping out of open doors or windows. It goes without saying that these last responses can be dangerous and lead to severe injuries or even death.
Unfortunately, without human intervention, phobias tend to get worse over time, not better. And, unfortunately, it is generally not possible to "cure" your dog of his or her phobia. We can, however, successfully manage their fears, to help them (and by extension you), be more comfortable during events your dog finds scary.
So what can we do to help dogs cope?
There are 3 main categories of "treatment tools" that we typically recommend for noise-phobic pets:
- Environmental Adaptations
- Non-pharmaceutical Aids
- Pharmaceutical Aids
Creating an environment that your dog feels safe in during scary events is the first line of defense in managing noise phobias. This means giving your dog a place to retreat to at the first sign of fireworks or thunder.
Some dogs already have a favourite spot to hide when they are scared (my Collie-mix can generally be found in the bathtub when fireworks interrupt his otherwise uneventful life). If this is the case, just make this area more comfortable prior to anticipated events.
If your dog does not have a preferred "den" already, create one in a dark, quiet area of your house. If your dog prefers to be with his/her humans while scared, place a crate or box in an area that the family will gather in, such as the living room or den. If your dog prefers to be alone, try the basement or bedroom. Keep doors, windows and curtains closed and cover the crate or box in blankets to make it into a "cave". Put your dog's favorite bed or blankets in the bottom (use caution with this if your dog becomes destructive with fear as ingestion of ripped fabrics can cause intestinal blockages).
Music or white-noise can also be an effective tool to both drown out the noise-causing fear and soothe your dog. Experiment with different types of music to see what works best for your dog.
This category includes natural remedies that do not cause sedation. Many homeopathic products are available, such as Rescue Remedy and Homeopet TFLN (Thunder/Fireworks/Loud Noises). Here, we will discuss Pheromones and ThunderShirts.
Pheromones are naturally released by animals as a way to communicate with others. They can affect behavior or physical response. Adaptil is a product that synthetically mimics the pheromone that mother dogs release while puppies are nursing. It helps create a feeling of confidence and well-being. It can be sprayed onto bedding in your dog's den, or plugged in as a wall-diffuser nearby. It is also available as a collar or can be sprayed onto a bandana or ThunderShirt if your dog refuses to stay in one area of the house.
ThunderShirts are simple Velcro garments that apply gentle, constant pressure around your dog's torso. The effect is similar to that of swaddling a baby, and many people find them to be very effective in calming anxious dogs.
Pharmaceutical aids are prescription medications that produce a sedative or anti-anxiety effect. Medications are generally used only when Environmental and Non-Pharmaceutical Aids have not been sufficiently effective.
Short-term medications can be used, generally given 1 hour prior to anticipated events, or long-term medications, which are given every day and take 4-8 weeks to become fully effective. Talk to your veterinarian to determine what medication may be best for your dog.
Exposure to loud noises, while your dog is a puppy, can help reduce the incidence of noise-phobias later in life, however, there is some evidence to suggest that certain breeds (such as herding dogs) can be predisposed to having noise sensitivities. Beginning management of your dog's fears as soon as they are displayed can help prevent them from becoming progressively worse as your dog ages.
Desensitization Therapy and Counter-Conditioning can be effective in reducing your dog's response to loud noises. However, if done incorrectly, this can actually make phobias worse. It is best to consult a Licensed Canine Behaviourist before attempting this with your dog.
Since every dog is different, not every dog will respond the same way to management tools. Some dogs find Classical Music calming, while others do not. Pheromones and ThunderShirts may be more effective for some dogs than others, and medications can affect different dogs in different ways. The best management plan for your dog will likely combine more than one category of tools and will take some time to perfect. The end result will be a calmer dog and less stressful night for you!