Scary Sounds: Understanding Noise Phobia in Dogs

7 min read

Dealing with the Problem


For discrete sounds such as the vacuum cleaner, Borns-Weil says systematic desensitization and counterconditioning can be a very effective treatment.


“It involves the presentation of the frightening sound at a gradually increasing intensity, always making sure to stay below the threshold of intensity that would cause a fear response,” Borns-Weil explains. “The presentation of the sound is paired with a high value reward such as food, play, or petting.”


A clear example of this is the story of a dog named Nugget, who became extremely anxious when she heard any large vehicle pass by on the street outside her house. “She and her mom had recently relocated to a busier part of town, so the sounds were new to her,” says Collins. “To help with this, I asked her to buy a CD with traffic noises.”


From then on, Nugget's mom would play the CD at a very low volume. “Then she gave Nugget a frozen Kong toy, stuffed full of boiled chicken bits and other tasty things that Nugget never got at any other time.” Collins explains. “After a few sessions, Nugget would notice the quiet traffic sounds when her mom turned on the CD and start looking excited, knowing that her goodie was coming next.” By the time Nugget's mom started to increase the volume of the CD, Nugget was already doing much better and was able to deal with the sound.


Desensitization and counterconditioning don't work well for certain noise phobias, such as thunderstorm phobia, since storms are multisensory.


“A dog may be desensitized to the sound of thunder with the help of a recording but still will be nervous about the sound of wind, the flashes of light, the rain, the pressure change, the static electricity in the air,” Borns-Weil says.


For thunderstorm phobia, she says a dog can be taught to go to a “safe place” in the home. Or you can try using sights and sounds—white noise, relaxing music, light blocking shades—to shut out the storm as much as possible. 


Anything else you can do? It depends on your dog. If you have a dog who approaches you for company and comfort when scared, don't ignore him. “In fact, ignoring and avoiding him may make him feel confused and more fearful,” Borns-Weil says. So let your boy sit on your lap if that makes him feel better, but keep in mind that providing comfort will not address the underlying problem. You'll still have to work on helping your dog overcome his fear.


Whatever you do, never punish or reprimand your dog for being scared.


“Punishing a dog for destructiveness, barking, or soiling that is done out of panic will only increase anxiety and make the problem worse,” Borns-Weil says.  


There are many other options if desensitization and counterconditioning are not helping a pet, says Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM. She recommends using cotton balls or rolled gauze sponges to place in the ear canals, which can lessen the noise during storms and fireworks displays. Just make certain to remove them after the inciting event. 


There are also natural calming agents which can help some pets, says Dr. Grzyb. Composure chews, rescue remedy, and Adaptil collars are options that have worked for some dogs.


Finally, if all else fails, the use of medications, such as sedatives, can be helpful in severely affected pets.



This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Katie Grzyb, DVM