We put a lot of emphasis on the environmental soundness of our dogs. This desired feature needs to include being oblivious to noise. Our dogs must perform, regardless of whether gunshots are fired, a thunderstorm approaches, or the 4th of July fireworks culminate in one final crescendo. Imagine your four-legged K9 partner running for cover when you need him most!
Environmental soundness doesn’t happen on its own, though. As always, nature and nurture are both at play. Dogs born with shy or anxious temperaments are much more likely to develop environmental fears down the road, and even a perfect upbringing may not prevent that entirely. Selecting the right puppy or young adult dog for the right purpose is the only way to provide a solid foundation.
First, let’s review a few fundamentals. Loud sounds may be startling or uncomfortable to your dog, but fear of such noises has most likely been conditioned in some way. Dogs are hardwired to take cues from their pack leader—in this case, you. Your emotions most definitely travel down the leash and meet your dog’s emotional state. If you take a dog born less confident (which is common), add a human handler with some degree of
anxiety (also common), and throw in a startling noise like a fire cracker or a construction worker firing up his jackhammer, the dog will probably be conditioned to fear such noises in the future. The same situation met by a confident dog and a relaxed, confident handler will produce a different outcome. The combinations are endless, but with some understanding of your personality, and your dog’s, you will be in an ideal position to better control the outcome.
Before we describe steps you can take, a common event in the world of startle noises has to be covered. I am talking about thunderstorms. Many stories of terrified dogs during thunderstorms range from nervous panting, pacing, shaking and clinging, hiding, to frantically escaping, sometimes even breaking through a window before jumping the fence and running into traffic, or disappearing altogether. Most people believe the noise of thunder is solely responsible, but even more powerful is the added variable of static electricity in the atmosphere. The resulting voltage can be experienced by some dogs as anything from uncomfortable tingling to painful shocks, especially in larger, heavy-coated breeds. Not surprisingly, such dogs will often hide in areas that provide excellent electrical grounding, such as basements, bathtubs or showers, and the floor behind
toilets. A dog’s fear of thunder, the darkening sky, lightning, wind noise, and rain may then be secondarily conditioned and further amplified by picking up tense and anxious signals from their humans.
Sedation isn’t a good way to help your dog with fear of thunderstorms, because it results in a scared dog that can’t run, and it doesn’t assist either recovery or prevention. Some people report that application of anti-static products has helped, but beware of any chemicals you apply that will later be licked by your dog. Heavily advertised ‘thunder shirts’ do seem to work for many dogs, in all likelihood simply by smoothing and pressing fluffy fur against the dog’s skin, thus decreasing the space for static
electricity to build and discharge.
Determining what caused your dog’s entrenched noise anxiety in the first place may be difficult, if not impossible. For some dogs, it gradually appears and gets worse for no apparent reason, or develops during the puppy stage and remains. This leaves you with two choices: managing noise phobias, or preventing them altogether.
Most importantly, you shouldn’t coddle or console your dog when you see symptoms of noise phobia, as this will only reinforce the dog’s notion that ‘something is up’. Only reward calm behavior. It is actually quite common that an owner’s nervousness in certain situations helps to condition the dog’s fear. Changing the environment for the dog or turning on the radio or TV to mask other noises won’t show dramatic results but can aid in symptom management. Noise desensitization in a controlled environment—exposing the dog to increasing levels of the phobia noise in order to
increase tolerance—is a tedious process that will usually produce decent results. And if you see your dog acting fearful towards a new sound, you should manage the problem actively, and right away. This is best accomplished in baby steps, carefully matching the degree of exposure to the body language your dog displays.