Many pet owners fail to recognize their pets’ anxiety in the early stages, and even fewer are likely to seek treatment. Intervention is key, though, because noise anxiety rarely gets better on its own. Ideally, intervention starts early, but even pets with pronounced fears can often be helped. A combination of desensitization, positive reinforcement and coping techniques can be used to train your pet to be more confident around loud noises.
Begin by consulting with your veterinarian to eliminate any potential underlying health issues that may be contributing to your pets’ fear of noises. Once he has a clean bill of health, there are a variety of strategies you can try with your pet to help him navigate the sounds of winter (and fall and summer, too).
Tactics to Try
Hear and cheer. Make a game of hearing sounds and responding calmly. Start with neutral sounds your pet notices and is accustomed to, such as the dishwasher or the television. When the sound starts — at the beginning of the washing cycle, for example, or when you first turn the TV on — mark your dog’s calm reaction to it with a word or a click and reward him with a highly palatable treat. Once your pet understands the game, begin to mark and reward for calm behavior in response to sounds that typically startle him or provoke a reaction, like the neighbor starting up the lawn mower. Ideally this will change his perception of those sounds — instead of being afraid when he hears the mower, he will look to you for a treat.
Play it. Condition your pet to be comfortable around noises that make him anxious by playing recordings of the noises at a low level. Pair the recording with a positive event, like mealtime or trick training. Keep the volume low enough that your pet does not display any signs of fear. Over time, if your pet remains relaxed, increase the volume. If it’s ever too loud and your pet is acting anxious or fearful, turn the volume down to where the pet is again relaxed and enjoying his treat or meal before ending the session. If possible, always end at a point of success.
Go slowly. To help your pet stay relaxed around frightening noises, introduce them at a gradual pace. For example, if your pet is fearful of the vacuum cleaner, have someone else run it in a different room with the door closed while you spend time working with your pet on trick training. As soon as your pet begins to show positive emotions or indifference toward the vacuum noise, the sound can be made a little louder by opening the door a crack. The goal is to get your pet to a place where he can remain calm in the room with the vacuum while it is running, but this may take time.
Keep him focused. Distract your pet by pairing positive things with events that once caused fear. If your pet loves fetch or tug, let the sound of thunder (starting with the recording) be a signal that it’s time to play. Other options are to give your pet a stuffed Kong with highly palatable goodies inside when the noise starts or to focus him on a behavior he enjoys, like trick training with rewards for good behavior. Some pets best release tension through movement; in this case, walking back and forth with your pet in a covered area while the noise lasts may help him manage his fear.
Minimize the scare factor. Try drowning out scary noises with calming sounds. A white noise device, fan or fountain can provide background noise. At the same time, you can play soothing music, such as classical music or music formulated to calm pets. Some dogs are comforted by petting, being talked to or being held, while others fare better if directed to focus on a task. Do what works best for your pet . And don’t be afraid to think outside the box.
Create a safe room. Choose a designated space, ideally in an area your pet is familiar with and willingly enters, like the bathroom, a closet or the basement. Make the space cozy and inviting by placing cushy blankets and a crate inside to provide a hiding space for the pet. Consider spritzing the space with dog or cat-appeasing pheromone to help create an extra sense of calm. You may also want to consider a compression garment like the Thunder Shirt, which can be calming for some dogs.
For severe cases of noise phobia, talk to your veterinarian. In addition to behavior modification, she may recommend medications that you can give your pet before fireworks, thunderstorms and other noisy situations to help reduce his anxiety.
This blog was written by McQueen Animal Hospital, an animal clinic (vet hospital/vet clinic) in Brampton committed to providing only the highest level of veterinary care to our beloved pets.