Overreaction to sounds is a problem very often reported by dog owners, especially during storms or fireworks displays. Fear of loud noises is a natural reaction of the animal to a stimulus which it assesses as dangerous to its health. What’s more, with such sensitive hearing as dogs have, very loud noises can cause pain. So it is hardly surprising that the dog wants to run away or hide from the noise. A pathological reaction, or phobia, is when the animal’s level of arousal is disproportionately high in relation to the potential threat, it takes a long time to recover from the stimulus and the fear becomes generalised. In short, a phobia occurs when fear loses its adaptive property.
Fear, evoking an automatic, unconscious reaction, is very easily conditioned. A neutral stimulus (e.g. wind, cloud cover, darkness), previously associated with an aversive stimulus (e.g. lightning or fireworks), acquires its characteristics and acquires the ability to cause fear with its physiological consequences. Thunderstorms, fireworks and gunshots are unpredictable events for the dog, over which it cannot have control. By linking fear-provoking stimuli with others, it tries to avoid what it perceives to be an imminent threat, in which case we speak of so-called anticipatory anxiety. In severe cases, for example, on 1 January and the following days, a dog may not want to leave its hiding place for fear of firecrackers going off. Fear is accompanied by autonomic nervous system stimulation such as pupil dilation, yawning, body trembling, drooling, sweating (between the pads of the paws), uncontrolled urination and defecation, and perianal sinus emptying (Fig. 1). In the case of phobias, sensitisation to sound stimuli is also common, with the result that the dog starts to react with fear to low intensity stimuli that have not previously caused it to become aroused.
An overreaction to sounds (thunderstorms, firecrackers, road noise, gunshots, etc.) may be the result of poor socialisation of the animal as a puppy, or it may be the result of chronic stress (due to so-called stress-related dyshabituation), a genetic predisposition or a traumatic event (e.g. a firecracker exploding near the dog). However, as many as 60% of owners of dogs that overreact to sounds believe that their pet’s phobia is not related to a specific event. One study, conducted on a large population of dogs with sound phobia, found that a traumatic experience as the cause of the condition is most common in cases of hypersensitivity to fireworks (35%), followed by thunder (24.7%) and gun shots (8%). Dr Overall’s research indicates a common occurrence of sound phobia and separation anxiety in dogs. The same author points to the over-representation of herding breeds (e.g. border collie) among animals exhibiting hypersensitivity to sounds. Furthermore, offspring of fearful dogs are also very likely to develop sound phobias. In Murphree’s study, for example, high reactivity to sounds was already observed in three-month-old puppies.
In situations where an owner can no longer ignore their dog’s behaviour, even if it is only for a few days or so a year, they often seek veterinary advice. The vet’s job is on the one hand to quickly relieve the suffering of the animal and on the other to educate the dog’s owner about the possibilities of behavioural therapy for anxiety outside of the period of exposure (i.e. after the storm or „fireworks” season). As with the treatment of other anxiety disorders, the use of systematic desensitisation and counter-conditioning to fear-provoking stimuli produces significant improvement. A 2003 study by Crowell-Davis et al found that the use of clomipramine and alprazolam in combination with behavioural therapy using sound recordings relieved storm phobia symptoms in 30 of 32 dogs. Here are 10 rules to tell the owner of a dog suffering from sound phobia to help the suffering animal on an ad hoc basis:
1.Never try to comfort or calm a dog when it is showing signs of fear – this will only reinforce the undesirable behaviour as it is understood by the dog to be praise.
2.Never hit or shout at a dog – this will only prove to the dog that there is something to fear and will consequently reinforce the undesirable behaviour.
3.The best solution is to ignore your dog completely – do not look at him or say anything to him.
4.If you are spending New Year’s Eve at home or are present during a storm, try to look (even exaggeratedly) relaxed and happy. You can start playing with your dog’s favourite toy (e.g. together with another household member) and wait for his reaction. If he joins in – that’s very good, if not – tough, don’t try to play with him by force.
5.Walks in the period of exposure to strong sound stimuli should be limited to the necessary minimum. If your dog shows signs of panic, never let him off the leash.
6.Fireworks and thunderstorms are not just about noise – the flashes can also unsettle your dog. Therefore, even a few days before New Year’s Eve or when the synoptics predict a thunderstorm, you should keep your windows carefully closed. You can darken one room where your dog will be staying – if he likes a particular room in the house, that should be the one you choose. If your dog lives in the yard, take him home or lock him in a secure room. In the place where the dog stays, make sure there is a special hiding place, such as a table covered with a blanket.
7.From the beginning of the „fireworks” or thunderstorm season, it is worth playing music, especially rhythmic music (bass, drums) – it will mask real fireworks or thunder. You can get your dog used to it already, but remember not to frighten him. At first, play it very quietly, then you can gradually increase the volume, always rewarding the animal if it behaves calmly.
8.If you know someone who has a dog that is not afraid of fireworks, it would be a good idea to initiate a meeting – first a few days before New Year’s Eve (playing, petting, treats, walking together) and then on New Year’s Eve night. The presence of a second, controlled dog can help to overcome anxiety in your dog. Research indicates that the 'contagiousness’ of phobias is a myth – the occurrence of hypersensitivity to sounds in dogs living together is due to similar predispositions.
9.If your dog is not vomiting or suffering from diarrhoea, it is a good idea to feed him a carbohydrate-rich meal (e.g. a lot of pasta) before a thunderstorm or a gunshot. Of course you should not force feed him – if he won’t eat, so be it.
10.Psychotropic medication (e.g. alprazolam) should be given before any noises start. In the case of firework phobia, therapy is best started around Christmas, and in the case of storm phobia, before going to work on a day when lightning is predicted.
The dosage of psychotropic medication depends on the expected duration of therapy and the severity of the symptoms. If the owner expects immediate help, reporting to the vet’s office on, say, December 31, we don’t have time to wait for the anti-anxiety effects of drugs from the serotonin reuptake inhibitor group or tricyclic antidepressants. Benzodiazepine derivatives such as alprazolam work best in this situation. Acepromazine should not be used. Table I shows the dosage of drugs most commonly used in the course of sound phobia. Pharmacological treatment should be supplemented with alternative therapies such as the use of soothing pheromones, dietary supplements or waistcoats such as Anxiety Wrap or Thundershirt.