Is Your Dog Afraid of Noises?

Some dogs are highly sensitive to certain sounds, such as emergency sirens, smoke detectors, and motorcycles roaring past your house. Here’s how to desensitize these dogs to loud, sharp, or otherwise unpleasant noises, and make them feel more comfortable and safe in their homes.

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Certain sounds – the beep of your microwave oven, the clatter of a spoon falling on the floor, the crack of a distant gunshot, even the click of a clicker – and your otherwise-normal, confident dog is trembling in terror at your feet. What makes a dog sound-sensitive? And what can you do to help your dog get over her fear of certain noises?

What is Sound Sensitivity? What Causes It?

Sound sensitivity is a fear response to normal auditory stimuli – sounds that most dogs hear without an obvious negative reaction. The fear response can range from mild stress behaviors such as staying near a trusted human for comfort – to severe anxiety, including panicked running, defecating indoors, and destructive chewing. While each dog may have her own list of fear-causing noises, sudden loud sounds such as gunshots, cars backfiring, fireworks, and thunder are high on many dogs’ lists.

Behavior is always a result of genetics and environment. The herding breeds, for example, are particularly prone to sound sensitivities, although any dog can potentially become fearful of sounds. However, a behavior doesn’t necessarily manifest just because a dog has a genetic propensity; it requires the right (or wrong!) combination of events to trigger the fear.

Puppies experience a significant fear period around the age of 8 weeks. Random fear periods can also occur throughout a dog’s adolescence, until the age of 18 to 24 months. Aversive noise-related experiences that occur during fear periods are likely to have a strong, long-lasting effect on a dog. However, aversive experiences that occur during non-fear periods can also create sound sensitivities. For example, many dogs who learn to associate a beep from their collar with the delivery of a shock can become quite fearful of similar beeps from household appliances such as microwave ovens, cell phones, smoke detectors, and electronic watches. While it’s especially important to be aware of potentially scary or painful sounds during fear periods, your dog can develop a fear of sounds at any time in her life.

How to Help Your Sound Sensitive Dog

  1. Management is a vital first line of defense in any behavior modification program. Identify sounds that your dog finds upsetting and try to avoid exposing her to those sounds and similar sounds. Use a verbal marker instead of a clicker. Create a safe space where she can go when she’s frightened by fireworks or thunder – preferably a place that blocks or muffles the sound, such as a basement or a well-insulated room without windows.

If she finds her crate comforting, you can also utilize “sound-proof crate covers” (covers made of heavy fabric; moving blankets work well for this), and help dampen the sound in that room with noise-blocking curtains, and/or sheets of sound-absorbing material (sold in home-improvement stores). A white-noise machine or calming music may also help muffle disturbing sounds.

  1. Medication can be an appropriate management tool. Consult with a veterinarian who is knowledgeable about behavior or a veterinary behaviorist to help you with this decision. There are over-the-counter options as well as prescription medications that can help your dog cope with scary noises.
  2. Comfort your dog. Despite what you may have heard, it’s perfectly appropriate to comfort your dog when she’s frightened. Your calm voice and gentle touch can help her through hard times.
  3. Modify her fear behavior. Identify the sounds that trigger her fearful responses and use counter-conditioning and desensitization (CC&D) to change her association with them from negative to positive. This is especially useful for changing your dog’s response to small, predictable noises that occur regularly in your home, such as the doorbell or intercom, digital assistant devices, beeping appliances and watches, and so on. See this article for in-depth information about how to use CC&D to help a dog with sound sensitivities.
  4. Seek the assistance of a qualified force-free professional if you need help to implement your modification program.

Sound-sensitive behaviors can be challenging to live with – and to modify. With your commitment and compassion, you can help your dog overcome her fears and give her a better quality of life.

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WDJ's Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.