TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dear Carla,
We have a 4-year-old mixed breed dog named Molly who is increasingly sensitive to noises. We adopted her when she was about 9-months-old and immediately noticed that she would flinch if a truck drove by or any sudden loud noise happened. As she’s gotten older, it seems to be getting worse. Sometimes she gets so scared that she tries to run. She’s also started to get panicky when there are thunderstorms. Is there anything we can do to help her?
This is a timely question with the Fourth of July fireworks shows coming this week. If a dog is sensitive to noise, they need to be safely contained inside the house on the Fourth. Shelters are full of dogs who have panicked and run away each fifth of July.
In my experience, dogs who are sensitive to noise do tend to get worse as they get older and some dogs don’t display any issues until they are several years old. My own dog who is 6 was socialized to as many loud noises as possible when she was a puppy, but has developed issues with fireworks and gunfire in the last year. The most effective way to treat noise sensitivities is with counter-conditioning and desensitization (CCD). This process gradually desensitizes the animal to something that scares them and changes the emotional response to the trigger. To do this, you will need some really great treats and a recording of the sound so you can control the volume. For treats, I would use hotdogs, cheese or something else that is very high value for Molly. Begin by playing the noise at a low enough volume so she just notices it and feed her treats. As soon as you stop the recording, cease feeding. You want her to associate the noise with the treats. Gradually increase the volume and feed each time the noise is played. If at any time Molly stops taking treats, you need to lower the volume. When a dog stops eating they are over threshold and cannot learn.
Unfortunately, thunder phobias do not respond well to the counter-conditioning and desensitization protocols. Experts aren’t completely sure why some dogs have issues with thunder, but many believe these dogs are particularly sensitive to changes in barometric pressure. This would explain why these dogs start to panic long before the bad weather arrives.
In addition to the CCD work, I would consult your veterinarian about pharmaceutical alternatives to help her calm down. If you are concerned about medicating Molly, there are homeopathic alternatives that work well, however you will need to find a vet who specializes in homeopathic veterinarian medicine. Many of the homeopathic options can be used when needed, which is a benefit.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.