Updated March 18, 2021
After every thunderstorm or firework night I wait for the calls:
- Dogs wandering the streets far from home
- Dogs that have gone through windows
- Dogs with lacerations from escape attempts
What we don’t see nearly enough are the dogs that just suffer in silence, panting, trembling or hiding at home. Noise phobias are common in dogs, and there’s a lot your vet can do to help.
How To Calm Dogs With Noise Phobia
Successful treatment is a combination of good advice and good medicine.
Plan In Advance
If you have a very young puppy, it’s possible to prevent noise phobia by making a game out of thunder or fireworks. I always recommend this, but I know it’s too late for most dog owners.
For adult dogs, as soon as they start showing the earliest signs of discomfort, it’s time to act. Create a safe space in your house that your dog will like to be in. It’s best to not use the same spot they hide in unless it works very well. For loud noises, it’s likely to work best against an internal wall and perhaps under a table but also near you.
You make it by knowing exactly where and how your dog will be happiest. It might take a few goes (and trips to the pet store!) to get right but the end result will be the most comforting refuge possible.Then you should teach your dog to associate it with positive experiences like play, attention and treats.
Stay Calm (& Present)
Forget all the rubbish about not consoling your dog when they are scared in case you reward the fear. Just imagine someone saying that about a child! I doubt it’s even possible to reward fear.
Simply put, fear begets fear. That’s why noise phobias generally get worse with time. The more you can alleviate the suffering, the better future episodes are likely to be.
Be a calm and dependable ‘rock’ for your dog. Even if your dog’s distress makes you stressed too, maintain a confident manner so your dog feels reassured. Don’t be afraid to pat or cuddle them depending on what soothes them the best. However, some just need to hide away.
Many owners also find that their dogs respond to relaxation training methods.
Make Them Safe
You just can’t be there every single time, so it’s also important to prepare for the worst.
- Fences will be tested to their utmost so maintain them well
- Windows glass needs a safety film: most modern houses have this
- Doors need to be solid or protected by a security door
- Microchip details need to be kept up to date
Distractions will work best in the milder or earlier stages of storm or firework anxiety. Once a dog gets worked up, food and toys may be ignored. However, many dogs will improve over time if they get offered their favourite treats or toys during a thunderstorm.
Loud music or other background noise may help but is unlikely to drown out the thunder adequately.
One trick that may still work is to practice commands. If your dog attended a training school, getting them to follow commands keeps them focused on you, not the noise.
The best attention-getter will vary from dog to dog. You might have a video your dog likes, or certain games.
Desensitisation & Counterconditioning
There’s been a noticeable move away from training dogs to get used to noises on a CD. Part of the reason is that storms and fireworks may cause fear in other ways than just noise alone. The other is that no good stereo can reproduce the sounds of the real thing. The most important reason is that no good evidence shows that it works.
Desensitisation and counterconditioning remain the best approaches if done well. However, the only way I see such a complex task succeeding is together with a behaviourist recommended by your vet. So this heading is really a plug for seeking help not just from vets, but also behaviour experts. They will have lots of good advice tailored to your situation.
Anxiety & Panic Medication
Lastly, most dogs will benefit from careful use of calming medications. Short-term drugs are used before a storm or firework night in dogs who are generally OK. Long-term drugs are used for dogs with more generalised anxiety, often together with a short-term agent.
Drugs we may use depending on the case include:
- Diazepam (short term/situational)
- Clonidine (short term/situational)
- Trazodone (short term/situational)
- Gabapentin (short term/situational)
- Imepitoin (short to medium term)
- Fluoxetine (long term)
We train owners to use medications in advance of the stimulus, aided by knowing the local festivities, or watching the weather closely. The weather radar is especially useful to have bookmarked on your phone.
Natural remedies and Dog Appeasing Pheromone, or DAP are also widely used, and might help. However, open label studies of these products demonstrate success rates which are only in the range expected for the ‘caregiver placebo effect‘. Until more evidence is available, our efforts may be best placed elsewhere.
There are several pressure garments, most famously Thundershirt®, sold as methods of alleviating anxiety. The evidence so far in dogs is inconclusive, but we support their use as they appear harmless.
That’s it. I wish there were more. The good news is this: most dogs who undergo tailored care will improve with time, not get worse.
If you’re a vet and our culture appeals to you, we’re currently hiring. Click here to learn more!
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.