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How to Help a Dog Fearful of Loud Noises

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."


Why Are Dogs Scared of Loud Noises?

Is your dog fearful of loud noises? Does you dog startle at the minimum noise? Is your dog fearfully reactive, barking and lunging at every sudden noise? Does your dog take cover when it hears the vacuum, the phone ring, a car pass by, the doorbell, or voices?

If yes, your dog may be living a stressful life, being unable to rest and stay relaxed. Your dog may be missing out on some good REM sleep. You may notice when your dog is sleeping he is alert and ready to react, almost as if living in a constant fight or flight state.

This fear may stem from various causes. If your dog just moved to a new home, it is normal for the first weeks to take some time to adjust to all the new smells, sounds, and sights. This should mellow down as the dog gets used to it, but it may take some time.

Some dogs have been traumatized by certain noises and have learned that by fleeing, they are safe and therefore the hiding behavior reinforces each time.

Another possibility is your dog undergoing a second fear period. This takes place between 6 and 14 months of age. Dogs during this time are more reactive and fearful of things that may have never scared him before.

And then, there are those dogs that are just nervous by nature. In these cases, there may be little you can do if your dog has been this way since puppyhood. You can still try to classically condition your dog to noises you're certain cause a fear response. Here's how you can do it.


Helping Your Dog Accept (and Even Love!) Noises

In 1897, researcher Isaac Pavlov conducted experiments with dogs and discovered that by ringing a bell before feeding, the dogs were drooling in anticipation of the food. The dogs had learned to associate the sound of the bell with food. You can try to change your dog's emotional state about noises by doing the same thing. Use noises to your advantage just as Pavlov did with the bell.

In other words, have some high-value treats or food nearby your couch out of reach or in a treat pouch around your waist. Every time you hear a noise that you know startles your dog, immediately launch your dog a treat before it has time to react. If your dog is too tense to eat the treat, invest in higher value treats such as hot dogs, freeze dried liver, steak, etc.

Do this exercise often, and then something magical will happen if you are diligent enough: when the dog hears the noise, the dog will look up to you for the treat rather than acting scared! The same can be applied to dogs fearful of thunder, the moment you see lightning and hear the first rumble, give treats. Thunder predicts chicken, how great is that?

By doing this, you have taught your dog to change its emotional state. This is called a conditioned emotional response. From the dog thinking ''A cell phone is ringing, how scary, better take cover!'' your dog will start thinking ''Yeahhh!! The cell phone is ringing, where's my treat, owner? Where's my treat!"

Warning: while counterconditioning works well, make sure to add systematic desensitization as well. Basically, don't expose your dog to overwhelming noises at first, otherwise you risk sensitizing (making your dog more fearful) rather than desensitizing. This risks setting your progress back a few steps.

Make sure your dog is under threshold. Start with low volume sounds at first and then upgrade gradually to louder sounds. Make sure to mix in some low volume sounds with the louder ones every now and then as you progress so your dog doesn't get stressed by predicting increasingly louder and louder sounds. Now this is not always possible with sounds you cannot control (such as thunder), but you can be in control by first letting your dog hear recordings of thunder at low volume and then gradually increase the volume.

A Hunter's Secret to Prevent Sound Sensitivity in Dogs

If you think about it, most dogs are terrified of loud noises. If you shoot a gun, most dogs will startle or run for their life.

Well, hunters have learned to train their dogs to love noises such as the noise of gunshots, no matter how loud it is. How? They make some quite chaotic noises right when they prepare to serve their dog's dinner.

They will therefore bang pots and pans, shut doors and storage bins, all for the purpose of desensitizing their dogs to loud noises. Because these scary sounds anticipate mealtime, most dogs will start forming many positive associations with them. Then they gradually upgrade to louder noises, the noise of firearms in the distance before feeding. No hunter could work with a gun-shy dog, could they?

It's all about creating powerful associations! If you are not around for some time, and need to leave your dog alone with noises and are unable to create positive associations, try leaving on the TV or radio to create white noise. Your dog may be less reactive. It also may help letting your dog wear a ThunderShirt. I know many clients who use them successfully for their fearful dogs.

As seen, classical conditioning is a very powerful tool and we have to thank Isaac Pavlov and his drooling dogs for this! Be diligent enough, and your dog will soon love noises as they predict food and meals!

For further reading

  • How to relax anxious dogs
    After working with animals for quite some years, I have learned to identify quickly dogs that are particularly tense by simply observing their body posture and facial expressions.
  • Flooding Therapy for Dog Behavior Issues
    adry copyright Flooding is a full immersion training technique applied both in humans and animal psychology. It consists of forcefully exposing the dog to the stimuli that triggers its fear and provoked the...
  • Reasons Why Dogs Growl
    Your dog may growl for several reasons. He may growl at you if you get too close to his bone, if you try to move him off the couch, if you tend to abuse him, or he may growl at other dogs and people.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2011 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 18, 2012:

As with any dogs, genetics in hunting dogs may also play a role when it comes to reactivity and the predisposition for being spooked. The nature versus nurture debate may open up here. If your dog would head under the bed at the sound of a gunshot it means you would sensitizing which is the opposite than desensitizing. This is why hunters starts with gunshots shot at a distance so to present the stimulus in a less threatening way. Best wishes, and thanks for stopping by!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on July 18, 2012:

I have always wondered how hunters can shoot a gun and their dog not be terrified. I just thought the breed of hunting dog just was not afraid. If my miniature schnauzer heard a gun shot, she would go under the bed and never come out!

Thanks for this info. I voted this Hub UP, and I will share, too.

SUSIE DUZY from Delray Beach, Florida on June 02, 2011:

My dog is freightened by people who yell or talk loud. She will leave the room.