Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
How to Help Dogs With Noise Sensitivity
Is your dog very sensitive to noises? By sensitive, I mean those dogs that literally jump in the air at the smallest sound or are reactive and start barking defensively at outdoor noises. Often, these dogs have a longer-than-usual recovery period. In other words, while a dog normally hears a noise, acknowledges it, and forgets about it within a few seconds or a couple of minutes, others have a harder time recovering.
Case Study 1: Fearful Foster Dog
A dog I fostered not too long ago was highly noise-sensitive. During hunting season, the noise of gunshots in the distance made her literally shake. On our walks, the sound of a gunshot being fired—despite being an isolated event—had a long-lasting effect. After several minutes, she was highly reactive to any noise or slight sound, even if it was much different than the original gunshot noise. She would stay in this over-reactive state for up to ten minutes or more!
The fact that the gunshots came randomly made them difficult to predict, which made the issue difficult to treat. Yet, with a little bit of cooperation from my neighbor's kids, we were able to get some progress when the Fourth of July was around the corner. More details on how I helped this gal overcome her fear are included in the following sections.
Case Study 2: Reactive Rotties
Another case of noise sensitivity I resolved successfully involved my own dogs. Moving from a four-acre property in the country to a town with a busy street nearby wasn't easy for my dogs. Soon, we came to dread the school bus. Every day at around 3:00, the old, rusty school bus would slow down and turn right around our home. This meant a loud shrieking noise that my dogs were never exposed to before. They say that puppies should be exposed to as many noises, sights, and experiences as possible during the critical stage of socialization, but it's difficult to be completely prepared for what life will throw at your pooches.
We definitely skipped exposure to school buses and the sounds of rusty brakes. So there they were, whining, barking, woofing at 3:00 each day. I was not sure who started this—perhaps it was only one dog, and the other dog fed off the anxiety—but it became clear that this was something I needed to work on. Today, both my dogs have come to love the sound of the bus. Again, there is more on how I solved the issue in the following section.
Helping Your Dog With the "Hear That" Method
Whether your dog is sensitive to noises because he is genetically wired to be fearful, or some traumatic incident has caused him to develop irrational fear, you know you need to take some steps to help him out. The "hear that" method I crafted for noise-sensitive dogs may be helpful. It's inspired by Leslie McDevitt's "Look at that" game, only that it's the auditory version. Let's take a look at what I did for my cases studies.
Case Study 1: Fearful Foster Dog
I mentioned above how my foster dog's fear of gunshot noises was overcome courtesy of my neighbor's kids firing fireworks when the 4th of July was right around the corner. Basically, the fact that my neighbor's fireworks were more predictable than the random gunshots fired by hunters helped a lot. I knew that the kids came home from school every day at 3:30, and after a few minutes, they were out firing the fireworks. I used the predictability of this routine to my own advantage.
I knew that my foster dog loved romping in the yard with my other dogs and hot dogs more than anything else. So I kept my foster dog and my other dogs nearby the door after 3:30. When I heard the first firework, I would send them immediately out to work their jollies off. Because her desire to run and play was so strong, she hardly noticed the fireworks. And when she did seem to take notice in between one play session and another, I would toss hot dogs around the yard.
Soon, the noise of fireworks, day after day, started taking many positive connotations. First, it signaled a play session, and second, it signaled that hot dogs were going to fall from the sky. The "hear that" method helped her tremendously!
Cases Study 2: Reactive Rotties
So how did I help my Rotts get used to the school bus? I used the "hear that" method as well. I made them aware of the noise and transformed it into a signal that great things were coming. So at 3:30 pm I armed myself with high-value treats, and when I heard the bus approaching, I would announce in a happy tone of voice "it's the old, rusty school bus, yay!!!!!" and then I started dropping treats on the floor and they eagerly went on their treasure hunt. Soon, day after day, my dogs were eager to hear the bus, because it signaled wonderful things were coming!
Case Study 3: "Hear That" for Dogs That React to Men
The Hear That method can also be used in reactive dogs. If your dog is reactive towards men, it doesn't hurt to have him hear men talking from another room. I first used this method with success with my dog back in 2011 when for some reason he was reactive towards my father-in-law. I put myself in my dog's shoes and soon realized that my family member not only looked imposing, but had a loud, booming voice. He often used his voice to his full potential to command his herding dog to maintain order with his flock of sheep and to communicate from a distance with my mother-in-law in the vast plains of the Padana Valley in Italy. Perhaps that was why my dog appeared slightly stressed every time he heard his voice.
So every time he yelled at the sheep, talked loudly, or even sang a song, I tossed medium-value treats to my dog. Because we were on the first floor and my father-in-law lived on the bottom floor, this distance helped muffle the voice a bit. When we had to go downstairs to eat, we took our dogs with us, and that's when I started using the higher-value treats. With time, my dog not only accepted his voice, but he even looked forward to it. And because my dog soon associated my father-in-law's voice and presence with good things, he even started warming up to him and showed relaxed body language.
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Afterward, I started using the "hear that" method with dog-reactive dogs, by letting them listen to a recording of tags jingling and dogs barking and started giving them treats. I then moved on to real barks and other vocalizations, but with the dog still out of sight and at a distance. I called this "pre-LAT work."
Why and how does the "hear that" method work? There are several reasons. We will look at them in the next paragraph.
How and Why the "Hear That" Method Works
What do a school bell and an ice cream truck's music have in common? They both have the potential to announce something good is about to happen. To a child, the school bell is much cherished as it signals the end of class and time to go home, and an ice cream truck may signal that tasty, refreshing ice cream is coming!
A word of caution though... of course, this doesn't apply to all! If a child likes school and the school bell interrupts an activity such as drawing—which the child loves to engage in—the school bell isn't perceived in the same way as it would be by a child who can't wait to go home and play.
If the child has no money or is lactose intolerant, the ice-cream truck may be a sad melody. The moral of the story? Know what your dog perceives as great and use it to your advantage. Does your dog love food? Games? Attention from you? Use what your dog really loves, loves, loves to help them overcome (or better cope with) scary sounds.
The process of getting a dog gradually used to a noise/sight/experience is known as "desensitization." Helping your dog overcome the fear of noise requires that you expose him to that noise in a form that's less intimidating. If you were scared of spiders, you would likely want a therapist that shows you pictures of spiders rather than forcing you to enter a bathtub full of spiders! In order for desensitization to be effective, you must make sure to not overwhelm your dog—especially during the initial stages.
Learning how to recognize the fine line where your dog is better able to cope with stimuli is unlocked by reading more about "dog threshold levels."
The process of changing a dog's emotions in regards to something that is feared/disliked is known as counter-conditioning. This is a very powerful behavior modification technique, especially when coupled with desensitization.
So, by combining desensitization and counterconditioning by using the "hear that" method, your dog acknowledges the noises that are presented sub-threshold while learning to make out of it a new, happy association. At the same time, when you toss treats, your dog engages in an alternate behavior that replaces the initial fearful response. "Hear that" is basically the auditory version of Leslie McDevitt's "Look at That" dog behavior modification method, also known as LAT.
Interested in how dogs register fearful events and how it affects their brain? Read how the amygdala plays a role in fear and how to overcome fear via exposure therapy.
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.
Questions & Answers
Question: Why is my dog only reactive in the house?
Answer: He or she may be displaying fear-based, territorial tendencies. Some dogs may feel safe at home and want to protect their safe haven from perceived intruders. Some dog breeds may also be particularly predisposed to sound the alarm and act as watchdogs. Some dogs take this role very seriously.
© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 23, 2020:
Sandimen, dogs as individuals may develop their own fears just as it happens to people. I know dogs who are terrified of beeps such as the sound emitted by microwaves, washers, smoke alarms when their batteries are drained and some clock radios, others terrified of the noises produced by musical instruments and some more are scared of fire alarms, people coughing etc.
Sandimin on June 19, 2020:
I have a 9yr old golden doodle that has several "quirks". I adopted him when he was 4, after his elderly owner passed away. When I got him he was not socialized at all. He was terrified of everything! It took me about two years to socialize him, and now he's just a big goofy boy.
Lately I've noticed that he gets scared and clingy anytime he hears a single bell sound (think the old fashioned bells that you tap at the butcher, or an alert on a phone). It doesn't matter how quiet the sound it makes is, it causes him anxiety. He will come and sit by me any time he hears it.
People have been lighting off illegal fireworks near where we live, and he doesn't even react to the loud noises they make. But a little "ding" upsets his world. Any idea why?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 24, 2019:
Andrea, they may or may not. It depends on how over threshold your dog is and every dog responds to things differently. What I have seen with calming supplements such as L-theanine is that they can help some dogs calm a bit enough to start behavior modification. I have seen them work more for mostly fear-related behaviors. I have never seen them work enough to help on their own. You may want to inquire about this with the behaviorist.
Andrea Kevin on December 22, 2019:
Adrienne you are correct! While i look into a behaviorist so you think calming supplements could help a little?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 21, 2019:
Hi Andrea, I am afraid the issue you are seeing is more a form of redirected aggression rather than just reaction to noises that frighten. This can be more complex to work on. You can read about this under the section on high arousal levels here:
Andrea Kevin on December 21, 2019:
Hi. I found this article to be very interesting and informative. My issue is a little different i think. I have an 11 yo chi mix and recently adopted a 2 yo chi a few days ago. He is more dominant and noise reactive to his new home. (Slighty noisy at times apartment building). The other night after sleeping up against his new sister he heard a noise outside. He directed his reaction onto my older dog and went after her while she was sleeping. I know he is adjusting to his new surroundings but i want to do all i can so that this is a success. He was at risk at the shelter of being put to sleep. He was previously adopted and returned. I believe it was because of this same reason.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 11, 2019:
Mel, you can try to buffer sounds with a radio or TV on if your dog is so hyper-vigilant.
Mel on October 28, 2019:
How do you recommend implementing this when the dog reacts to noises that I can't hear? She is extremely alert and woofs at things that I can't see or hear in the home.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 10, 2017:
Aga, if your dog is reactive towards noises, this technique is pretty simple to implement.
Agnes on August 23, 2013:
Great article, alexadry! Interesting. I don't know if I had enough "training talent" in me though to follow your tips here :-)
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 21, 2013:
Eiddwen, Giblin girl, thanks for stopping by. I hope it works well for you! Kind regards!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 21, 2013:
Epbooks, desensitization and counterconditioning can be used for many behavioral problems, so I am sure the lights can turn into something fantastic if you work on it for some time and always under threshold! best wishes!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 21, 2013:
And those associations in humans and dogs are long lasting, good or bad.. Like when my sister used to get palpitations when her boyfriend used to call, and now that they broke up, she still gets these palpitations, even if she knows well no phone calls will come again as they broke up for good. It takes a while for change to happen, and our body often tricks our mind!
GiblinGirl from New Jersey on August 20, 2013:
I will definitely have to try this. My dog is super sensitive to noises.
Eiddwen from Wales on August 20, 2013:
Another great article for dog owners.
Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on August 19, 2013:
Perfect instructions I think many can benefit from. I had written a hub yesterday about one of my dogs who was afraid of light...and another one who would viciously attack shadows, but be sweet as a pie if no shadows were around. I wonder if this method would have worked for them. It seems like it might have. Thanks for posting!
rose-the planner from Toronto, Ontario-Canada on August 19, 2013:
Great article! I think your concept is amazing. It's true that even humans associate certain sounds to positive things such as the ice cream truck example. It makes sense to use your method towards helping dogs overcome their dislike or fear of certain noises, such as the loud school bus. Well done! Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose
Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on August 19, 2013:
Your technique for overcoming sound sensitivity in your dogs is very interesting. Teaching your dogs to connect noises they didn't like to upcoming treats was a great idea. Lots of dogs dislike the sudden "bang,bang,bang!" of fireworks or the sudden claps of thunder in a storm, so this is a good lesson for how to desensitize them to these sounds.