Bang! Boom! Developing Training Plans for Dogs with Noise Aversion
Summary: Developing an effective training plan for dogs suffering from noise aversion is complicated by the co-morbidity of other behavior challenges, the inherent unpredictability of the stimulus, and the tendency of clients to minimize their dog’s distress. Research-informed practical suggestions can help behavior consultants develop protocols that are flexible and easy for clients to understand.
Introduction: What is noise aversion?
Setting: a living room in a small house; it’s dusk on a quiet summer night; crickets are heard in the distance
You: [sitting on the couch, eyes heavy, nodding off]
[A LOUD UNKNOWN NOISE WITHIN EAR SHOT]
You: [startled; jump up searching for the source of noise]
[LOUD NOISES CONTINUE IN BURSTS]
You: [scramble to nearest hiding spot, fiercely shaking, unrelenting panting causes saliva to drip off your tongue]
Too often this is the reality for dogs who fear fireworks, thunder, and other loud noises. Up to 52% of the pet dog population displays behaviors indicating they suffer from noise aversions.1,2 Unfortunately, according to Blackwell et al. (2013) only 25% of guardians recognize their dog is afraid of noises.1 This suggests that for dogs who fear loud noises, their guardians may only be able to recognize their dog’s body language about 50% of the time, and their guardians seek treatment even less frequently.
If you are a professional behavior consultant, you have likely encountered this scenario many times: dogs who are terrified of loud noises, and clients who are unaware how much their dog is suffering. It’s also likely, that you have encountered guardians that are aware of their dog’s suffering but have no idea how to help. The strategies that follow are designed to give dog trainers and consultants insights from the scientific literature in order to improve the assistance they provide.
Fear and sensitivity to loud noises pose direct negative welfare implications for all parties involved.3 Dogs who experience long exposures to loud noises at close proximity typically become more sensitized and continue to experience increased fear and anxiety.4 This has been shown to impact the dog’s long-term health, lifespan, and welfare.5 Consequently, both mild and severe signs of noise phobia should be recognized, addressed, and treated as soon as possible.6
The behaviors displayed in response to loud noises differ between individual dogs and occur on a spectrum. They typically range from a fear to a phobia. Fear is an adaptive response to a potential threat that ensures safety and survival,7,8 whereas a phobia is a maladaptive response and can be characterized by a dog exhibiting an excessive, irrational response (in duration or intensity) to a threatening or non-threatening stimulus.6,8
Common behaviors displayed in both types of reactions: hiding, urinating, defecating, chewing, panting, pacing, trying to escape (digging, jumping through windows, or going through walls, running away), drooling, seeking the owner, expressing anal glands, anorexia, not listening to cues, trembling or shaking, dilated pupils, and vocalizing (barking).6,8,9-12 I will use the term “noise aversion” to describe dogs who display overly anxious and fearful reactions to specific sounds, such as fireworks and thunderstorms.
Most dog guardians do not have the training to know when behaviors are concerning and/or when they are not.13 They might neglect to mention behaviors related to loud noises. Most often this is a result of a lack of knowledge. And, sometimes dog guardians are more concerned about other behaviors and want to focus on those. And, then there are the dog guardians who think the dog will “just grow out of it.” As the expert, you are responsible for recognizing signs of, and precursors to, behavior problems your clients may be unaware of. Once concerning behaviors have been identified, your responsibility is to educate clients about what these behaviors mean, help them understand that when dogs have these experiences it can turn into a more serious problem, and emphasize that it is best to address and treat them now.
Oftentimes, total resolution of noise aversion is unrealistic. A reaction to a threatening stimulus is a normal biological response and cannot be completely eliminated from the behavioral repertoire of any animal.14 But guardians can expect to see a decrease in the fear response and/or a higher tolerance of the noise with appropriate training and guidance.14 Subsequently, a reduction in problematic behavior and an increase in coping behaviors can lead to increased welfare for both the dog and the guardian. As you explain your prognosis to the client, mention that behavior modification is a slow and steady process.
Before implementing a behavior change plan, help your client determine specific triggers, their precursors, and what behaviors each trigger produces. It is important that with each trigger, you establish and chart a baseline that includes behavioral measures such as the frequency of exposure, the duration of the response, and/or the time it takes for the dog to recover following a trigger.
There are different factors that contribute to the prognosis of a good or bad outcome. Those include: (1) the severity of the phobia, (2) how long the dog has experienced this phobia, (3) is the event ongoing/seasonal or is it predictable, and (4) owner practice and compliance.6 When the behavior is less severe, newer, is caused by predictable events, and the guardian carefully follows every step of a behavior modification plan, the prognosis is better. When the behavior is more severe, has been happening for a long time, the antecedent is unpredictable, and the owner does not practice diligently, the outcome is less favorable.
As you consider a treatment plan for your clients with noise-averse dogs, it is important that you prioritize the immediate welfare of the dog over diagnostically preferable steps. This means that in some circumstances you might be required to skip steps in order to attend to the dog’s immediate welfare needs. For example, if a client comes to you on July 2nd, saying that their dog salivates, shakes, and hides in the bathroom whenever there are fireworks, creating and implementing an effective behavior modification plan before 4th of July fireworks is impossible. In an ideal world, this would have been addressed months before the impending fireworks, but the world is imperfect, and you must have a backup plan. In this situation, you will likely focus on management instead of behavioral modification, and a referral to a veterinarian who can determine if a situational anxiolytic medication may be appropriate. In this example, before implementing your long-term plan for next year’s fireworks, you need to provide the clients with some crisis management solutions.
Creating a treatment plan
As a behavior consultant, you are responsible for developing the training plan and determining when to refer to a vet or veterinary behaviorist so that the dog may be evaluated to see if the dog is a candidate for situational or daily behavioral medication.
Working with a veterinarian
Behavioral medication can be quite helpful in treating noise aversions;3,6,14 however, as a behavior consultant you cannot practice veterinary medicine. You can advise clients that you think their dog might benefit from medication. But, recommending specific medications and doses is an example of practicing veterinary medicine without a license, and this is illegal. Your focus should be on creating a team that consists of you, the client, the dog, and a vet, all working together to ensure the dog receives compassionate, attentive, and meticulous care. Everyone has a role to play.
As the behavior consultant, your role is to develop a training plan, teach clients how to implement it, and gather information to share with the vet that will help them determine if the dog might need the additional support of medication or adjustments to medication as treatment progresses. You are the liaison. You can share the videos you recorded and discuss the behavioral measures you implemented with the veterinarian so they can use that information to inform their diagnosis and treatment plan. Clear, healthy boundaries will keep everyone safe, while developing trust and respect.
There are three occasions when it is important that your client seeks advice from a veterinarian as soon as possible.
- If the client has been diligently working with their dog, and video confirms there has been little progress.
- When there is no time for behavior modification because the event is right around the corner.
- If the dog is experiencing musculoskeletal pain.
Lopez Fagundes et al. 2018, found three characteristics unique to sound issues that are related to underlying pain and may require further veterinary support.15 (1) Dogs with sound sensitivities and musculoskeletal pain, are likely to generalize to other sounds rapidly. (2) Dogs who did not previously show signs of distress in response to loud sounds and are around 5 years of age (or older) might have underlying pain. (3) Behavioral changes around other dogs, including avoiding other dogs. The authors note that trialing pain medications and not seeing a change in behavior does not necessarily mean that pain is not a factor. Rather, they suggest that the medication may not be addressing the pain or was not dispensed at the correct dose. It may be helpful to keep these factors in mind when initially consulting with your clients and throughout behavior change plan.
Basic rules to communicate to your clients
Do not punish the dog.
Make sure your clients understand that dogs who are displaying undesirable behaviors when triggered by loud sounds are not misbehaving. They are fearful or phobic and should be given tools and support so they can learn to cope with the situation. Punishment neither supports nor assists in the development of a dog’s coping skills.16
Do interact with and comfort the dog.
Contrary to popular belief, comforting a dog who is scared will not make the behavior worse.17 Suggest to your clients engage in a fun activity, such as tossing the dog a Kong or Toppl, or playing their favorite game. This helps everyone focus on something else and creates a distraction while the thunderstorm passes or until the fireworks end.
Do Create a safe space
Dogs who are left alone during fireworks or thunderstorms can put themselves in harm’s way. When clients are creating a safe space for their noise-averse dog advise them to include: limited daylight or closed blackout blinds, having music or the TV on, having the guardian try to be home with the dog, and providing the dog with a Kong or comfort toy. 18 While the dog may choose to hide and ignore its guardians, it is still physically and emotionally safer for the dog to have their guardians nearby.19
Behavior modification focuses on changing the dog’s behavior while the environment stays (relatively) the same. There are two main skills that consultants should help guardians and their dogs learn: to relax on a mat, and to change their reaction the sounds through counter-conditioning and desensitization (CC/DS). The goal of mat relaxation is to replace behaviors such as hiding and pacing, and to create a classically conditioned relaxation response to the mat.
When you begin teaching clients’ dogs mat relaxation, first make sure there are no fear-inducing noises present.20 Dogs who have mastered mat relaxation lie calmly on the mat (or bed, towel, etc.). Their body is loose, and they look like they are almost asleep. When they stand or sit up, they might stretch and yawn, as if they have awoken from a nap.
When practicing mat relaxation with their dog, the guardian should also be relaxed. Turning off outside distractions is likely to help the dog and the guardian succeed. As they are training, encourage guardians to take deep breaths. During the session, the dog should gradually move from a sphinx-like down to a relaxed down with their hip to one side. Taking deeper breaths and placing their chin on the bed are both signs of success. If the dog falls asleep, even better!
Mat relaxation requires 10 to 20 minutes of daily practice and a lot of patience. To start, the guardian should bring the dog over to the bed. The guardian will sit next to the bed and the dog will sit in the bed. Then, the guardian should lure the dog into a down position. Using a lure is important because it teaches the dog to settle, rather than to work. If the dog does not already know “down,” the guardian can shape it as they lure. Be sure the guardian avoids using cues and markers, delivers the treats slowly and calmly, and places them between the dog’s front paws. Low-value treats are preferable as they won’t be overly exciting. It is also recommended not to talk to the dog during this exercise.
At the start of training, a high rate of reinforcement is preferable to help the dog build value and desire to stay on the bed. As the dog progresses, the guardian can very gradually begin to space out the time between the treats. At first, the dog might get up when this happens, and that is okay. They should simply, lure them back into the down position on the bed.
It is important that guardians practice this exercise in less frequent but longer training sessions each day. Practicing once per day for 10 minutes is preferable to three times per day for three minutes. When the dog sees the bed come out, walks over to it, lies down, and displays relaxation-related behaviors quickly, the hard work is paying off.
Counter-conditioning and desensitization
Counterconditioning (CC) is the process of pairing desirable stimuli such as food or play with the fear-eliciting stimuli.20Desensitization (DS) can be defined as gradual and controlled exposure to the stimulus to extinguish the manifestations of fearful behavior.21 Counter-conditioning is most effective when paired with desensitization (CC/DS).20
The goal of CC/DS is to teach the dog to be less anxious and fearful of loud noises, so they can relax when real-life events like fireworks and thunderstorms occur. CC/DS is largely considered the best behavioral modification treatment for sound aversions. 6,11,21
Jean Donaldson’s open-bar, closed-bar metaphor22 can be an effective way to introduce the concept to clients, and can be broken down into seven steps:
- Provide clients with a recording of the sounds the dog is fearful of, or have them take a recording. There are some playlists on Spotify and YouTube that may also be helpful.
- Identify a volume where the dog does not react to the noise. It is best to start with the sound low and increase the volume one click at a time.
- Take out the dog’s relaxation mat and have their most favorite treats ready in pea-sized pieces. Sit down in front of the dog and have them lie on their mat.
- Play the sound (the bar opens).
- Feed the dog treats continuously as the sound plays.
- Pause the sound for 15 to 60 seconds (the bar closes) and immediately stop feeding treats.
- Repeat steps 4 through 6 for a few days at the same volume.
When the dog hears the sound and their body language communicates that they are anticipating treats, the guardian should increase the volume by one click. After raising the volume, the dog should remain relaxed and not show any signs of stress. If they do show signs of stress, the volume is too loud, and the guardian needs to go back to the previous volume setting. Training should occur at that volume until the sound can be increased and the dog remains relaxed.
- There should be a clear contrast between when the sound is heard and when it is not. Treats are only offered when the sound is heard. We want the dog to excitedly anticipate the noise so they can get lots of treats.
- Order is important. The sound comes on, then the treats are offered. The treats are not meant to simply be a distraction while the sound happens in the background. They are meant to be a predictable consequence of the sound starting.
- The dog should remain relaxed throughout practice sessions. If they start scarfing down treats, taking treats hard from the guardian when they have been taking them softly, getting stiff, shaking, or becoming hypervigilant, the guardian should slow down, reduce the volume and spend more time working at each sound level.
In a study by Riemer (2020),21 70.8% of dog guardians indicated that they believe counter-conditioning and desensitization were effective in alleviating their dog’s noise aversion. However, these methods do present some challenges. They require a great deal of time, daily practice, and a dedicated guardian. The practice must be maintained periodically to ensure the dogs retain their non-fear response. Additionally, real-life conditions can be difficult to replicate, and some dogs do not respond to, or generalize, the recordings to real-life events. With these considerations in mind, it is important to realistically advise your clients in order to develop and maintain reasonable expectations about the dog’s behavior.
Assessing the treatment plan
Assessment is an important part of your behavior modification plan and should not be overlooked.23 One way to assess and track the dog’s progress is to take videos, either in your sessions or sent by your client. You can use these videos to code the behaviors seen during baseline and return later to track progress. If clients get stuck or frustrated at any time, returning to the original baseline measures, and comparing them to where they currently are, is a good way to quantify the dog’s progress. It is also a good opportunity for you to provide reinforcement to the guardians for all their hard work. Videos can also help assess any procedural errors and allow you to help clients adjust their training. These errors are likely caused by one of two things: Your client is not aware of the mistakes they are making, or they are not making these same mistakes when you work together in person.
Setting: a living room in a small house; it’s dusk on a quiet summer night; crickets are heard in the distance
You: [sitting on the couch, eyes heavy, nodding off]
[A LOUD UNKNOWN NOISE WITHIN EAR SHOT]
You: [go lie on your bed, relaxed]
- Blackwell, E. J., Bradshaw, J. W., & Casey, R. A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear-related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 145:1–2, 15–25.
- Riemer, S. (2019). Not a one-way road—Severity, progression and prevention of firework fears in dogs. PLOS One, 14:9, e0218150.
- Engel, O., Müller, H. W., Klee, R., Francke, B., & Mills, D. S. (2019). Effectiveness of imepitoin for the control of anxiety and fear associated with noise phobia in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 33:6, 2675–2684.
- Tiira, K., & Lohi, H. (2015). Early life experiences and exercise associate with canine anxieties. PLOS One, 10:11, e0141907.
- Dreschel, N. A. (2010). The effects of fear and anxiety on health and lifespan in pet dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125:3–4, 157–162.
- Ballamwar, V. A., Bonde, S. W., Mangle, N. S., & Vyavahare, S. H. (2008). Noise phobia in dog. Veterinary World, 1:11, 351–352.
- Handegård, K. W., Storengen, L. M., & Lingaas, F. (2020). Noise reactivity in standard poodles and Irish soft-coated wheaten terriers. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 36, 4–12.
- Sherman, B. L., & Mills, D. S. (2008). Canine anxieties and phobias: An update on separation anxiety and noise aversions. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 38:5, 1081–1106.
- Beerda, B., Schilder, M. B., van Hooff, J., & de Vries, H. W. (1997). Manifestations of chronic and acute stress in dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 52:3–4, 307–319.
- Franzini De Souza, C. C., Dias, D. P. M., Souza, R. N. D., & Medeiros, M. A. D. (2018). Use of behavioural and physiological responses for scoring sound sensitivity in dogs. PLOS One, 13:8, e0200618.
- Levine, E. D., Ramos, D., & Mills, D. S. (2007). A prospective study of two self-help CD-based desensitization and counter-conditioning programmes with the use of Dog Appeasing Pheromone for the treatment of firework fears in dogs(Canis familiaris). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 105:4, 311–329.
- Overall, K. L., Dunham, A. E., & Frank, D. (2001). Frequency of nonspecific clinical signs in dogs with separation anxiety, thunderstorm phobia, and noise phobia, alone or in combination. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 219:4.
- Grigg, E. K., Chou, J., Parker, E., Gatesy-Davis, A., Clarkson, S. T., & Hart, L. A. (2021). Stress-related behaviors in companion dogs exposed to common household noises, and owners’ interpretations of their dogs’ behaviors. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 8:76084.
- Crowell-Davis, S. L., Seibert, L. M., Sung, W., Parthasarathy, V., & Curtis, T. M. (2003). Use of clomipramine, alprazolam, and behavior modification for treatment of storm phobia in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 222:6, 744–748.
- Lopes Fagundes, A. L., Hewison, L., McPeake, K. J., Zulch, H., & Mills, D. S. (2018). Noise sensitivities in dogs: An exploration of signs in dogs with and without musculoskeletal pain using qualitative content analysis. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 5
- Ziv, G. (2017). The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs—A review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 19, 50–60.
- McConnell, P. (2009). The Other End of the Leash Blog, “You Can’t Reinforce Fear: Dogs and Thunderstorms.” Last accessed 10/13/2022
- Sheppard, G., & Mills, D. S. (2003). Evaluation of dog-appeasing pheromone as a potential treatment for dogs fearful of fireworks. Veterinary Record, 152:14, 432–436.
- Payne, E., Bennett, P., & McGreevy, P. (2015). Current perspectives on attachment and bonding in the dog-human dyad. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 71.
- Keller, N. E., Hennings, A. C., & Dunsmoor, J. E. (2020). Behavioral and neural processes in counterconditioning: Past and future directions. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 125, 103532.
- Riemer, S. (2020). Effectiveness of treatments for firework fears in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 37, 61–70.
- Donaldson, J. (2009). Dogs Are from Neptune (2nd ed.). Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise Publishing.
- Moncher, F. J., & Prinz, R. J. (1991). Treatment fidelity in outcome studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 11:3, 247–266.
Rachel Lane, CPDT-KA, is a graduate student at Virginia Tech in the Applied Animal Behavior and Welfare online masters program. Under the mentorship of Drs. Erica N. Feuerbacher and Lisa Gunter, Rachel carried out research examining puppy owners’ perceptions of puppy socialization and their ability to interpret canine body language. She lives and works as a professional dog trainer in New York City and has been training dogs for over a decade. Rachel loves translating cutting-edge animal behavior science into practical, efficient, effective, and humane training plans. Her goal is to help dogs and their people live happier, healthier lives together. Rachel is the proud doggie-mom to the best rescued terrier mix, Dustin. You can reach Rachel at rlanedog.com, leashandlearnnyc.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.