What do I do if my dog is scared of loud noises?

By Rachel Casey | dog, behaviour, noise, fear, anxiety, problem, fireworks

If your dog is worried by noises they hear, there are two things to consider: 

  • What to do NOW on fireworks night or during a thunderstorm!
  • What to do in the long term

 Immediate things you can do

The key things to do if your dog is worried by noises are to:

1. Reduce the direct impact of the noises and flashes

You can make the environment less scary for your dog by trying to block out the sounds of the fireworks or other noises as much as possible. Shut windows and have your dog in the central part of the house as much as possible. You can also play music or have the TV on to drown out the noises outside. For fireworks or storms, you should also shut curtains to make sure that your dog cannot see the flashes of fireworks or lightening. Avoid taking your dog out when there might be a risk of fireworks – finish exercise in good time to be settled inside the house.

2. Stay calm yourself and don’t tell off your dog

It is important to stay calm yourself and follow your normal routine. If you do something different from usual, this is likely to worry your dog even more. For example, going backwards and forwards to the window to see what’s going on is likely to draw your dog’s attention to what is going on outside. Lots of people worry about how their dogs will react - but try to behave as normal with your dog. He or she won’t know that you are worried about them, and may well associate your odd behaviour with the noises going on outside!

Even if your dog dashes about or does something annoying, such as digging behind the sofa, don’t tell him or her off. He or she is behaving like this because they are scared, and it is counter-productive to get angry.

3. Help your dog find a coping response

You need to help your dog to find a way of coping with noises. The best way of doing this is providing him or her with a ‘den’. This can be any space that the dog can hide in that will give them a feeling of security. Ideally if should be as sound proofed as possible, and it is a good idea to make the space quite small for the dog so that he or she can just squeeze in. This could, for example, be a space in an under-stairs cupboard filled with lots of blankets and bedding that the dog can squash into. Alternatively, you can make an indoor kennel more ‘den-like’ by putting more blankets inside and covering it with thick blankets to deaden the sound.

 Ideally a den should be introduced to a dog before the fireworks event or storm so that he or she can learn that it is a good place. If you introduce it for the first time when your dog is frightened they may not use it - in which case don't try and force them to do so. It will be something to work on for the next occasion. If your dog does use the den, or goes to hide somewhere else, then it is better to not approach them or try and bring them out. They are doing what works best for them to cope with the noises, and approaching them can increase their anxiety, even resulting in aggression in some cases.

Many dogs seek reassurance from their owners when worried – this is their ‘strategy’ for coping with the loud noises. It has commonly been suggested in the past that dogs should be ignored if they are frightened – but we do not recommend this. If you suddenly withdraw reassurance when they are terrified by noises it is likely to cause them to be very distressed. In the long term it is better that your dog is not reliant on your attention when he or she is worried – but changing this is a long term aim as described below, not something to start when he or she is panicking!

Longer term treatment

If you identify signs that your dog may be worried, talk to your vet about referral to a behaviourist. It is important to contact your vet first so that he or she can check that there are no medical problems, and help you find a qualified behaviourist. Your vet will also be able to discuss with you whether medication might be helpful. Programmes of behaviour therapy recommended will vary for each dog, but may include the following elements: 

  1. Establishing a consistent way for your dog to cope when he or she hears noises. This often involves teaching him or her to seek out a den to hide when they are worried. This might need you to gradually change your dogs ‘coping’ response away from one that relies on your attention. It is not a good idea in the long term for your dog to rely on your attention to cope with noises, because he or she will be much more distressed if loud noises happen when you are not at home.
  2. Gradually teaching your dog that noises are not scary through a process called ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning’. This usually involves playing recorded versions of the scary noises, but starting at such a low volume that your dog is not scared. The volume and direction of sounds are changed over time, but so slowly that the dog does not show signs of fear. The sounds are also associated with something positive such as a treat or game.

 Will my dog need medication?

Talk to your vet about whether your dog would benefit from medication. In some cases, it can be very beneficial in the short term to use medication when loud noises are expected. This is because treatment programmes, such as desensitisation and counter-conditioning, are difficult to progress with if your dog is intermittently exposed to very loud noises between training sessions. The benefit of the correct short term medications used for these occasions is that they can block memory