There are two aspects to dealing with dogs which are fearful of loud noises:

  1. What to do NOW to help mitigate your dog's noise fears, if it is fireworks night or there is a thunderstorm coming
  2. What to do to treat your dog's noise fears in the long term

1. Mitigating your dog's noise fears if loud noises are imminent

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

  • Reduce the intensity of the noise and of anything associated with the noise, such as flashes of fireworks or lightening.
  • Stay calm yourself and don’t tell the dog off
  • Help enable your dog to show a coping response

Reduce the intensity of the noise and flashes of fireworks or lightening

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 all windows. Keep the dog in a part of the house as far away from the noise as possible. You can also play music or have the TV on to drown out external noises. For fireworks or thunderstorms, you should also shut curtains to make sure that your dog cannot see the flashes of light. Avoid taking your dog out when there might be a risk of loud noises – finish exercise in good time to be settled inside the house.

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. So 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 happening outside. Lots of people worry about how their dogs will react - but try to behave normally with your dog. Your dog won’t know that you are worried about them, and may associate your unusual behaviour with the noises outside.

Even if your dog dashes about or does something annoying, such as digging behind the sofa, don’t tell him or her off. They are scared and it is counter-productive to get angry. If your dog is doing something potentially dangerous, distract them with positive interaction - for example calling them to you in a 'cheerful' tone of voice. 

Help your dog find a coping response

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 in which the dog can hide that will give them a feeling of security. Ideally it 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 or may not use it. If they don’t use it, it is important to not force them to do so. It will be something to work on for the later occasions. 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 to help them cope with the stress of the noises. Approaching them can increase their anxiety, even resulting in aggression in some cases.

Many dogs seek reassurance from owners if they are worried – this is their 'strategy' for coping with the loud noises. It is commonly suggested that these dogs should be ignored if they are frightened – but I do not recommend this. If you suddenly withdraw attention from a dog that is already reliant on you just as they are scared by noises, it is likely to cause them more distress. In the long term it is better that your dog is not so reliant on your attention when he or she is worried – but changing this is a long term aim (see below). So please don’t suddenly stop giving your dog attention during a fireworks event or storm without having worked on this beforehand – but think about changing this behaviour for the future.

2. Long term treatment of noise fears

See your vet and get a referral to a behaviourist

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 for your dog in the short term. Programmes of behaviour therapy usually include a number of different elements, such as:

  • Establishing a consistent way for your dog to cope with noises, for example teaching him or her to seek out a den to hide when they are worried. This might also include changing your dog's '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 being with you to cope with noises, because this will cause distress if noises occur when you are not at home.
  • 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 noises, but starting at such a low volume that your dog is not scared. The volume is increased and direction of sounds varied over time, but changed so slowly that the dog does not show signs of fear. The sounds also need to be associated with something positive such as a treat or game.

Will my dog need mediation to help with noise fears?

Talk to your vet about whether your dog would benefit from medication. In some cases, it can be very helpful 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 if your dog is intermittently exposed to very loud noises between training sessions. The benefit of the correct short term medications used on these occasions is that they can prevent your dog from forming new negative associations – and help to reduce the impact of these events on all the work you are doing with behaviour modification.

In some cases longer term medications may also be necessary to aid behaviour modification where responses are well established or severe. The decision whether to include drug therapy in a treatment programme will be made by your vet, often in discussion with a behaviourist or veterinary specialist. The primary aim of drug therapy is to help an owner be successful with the associated behaviour therapy programme. The factors involved in this decision might include the severity of the behaviour, other things in the environment which impact on the dog, aspects of the situation which might make following behaviour modification programmes challenging, and considerations about the welfare of the dog. Medications used are prescription only, and therefore only available from your vet. If a drug is recommended for a particular case, your vet will explain how to give it, what to look out for, and how long medications have to take effect. If your dog is prescribed medication it is very important that it is not stopped suddenly without checking with your vet first.

There is no scientific evidence that any over-the-counter or non-prescription products are valuable in the treatment of noise fears in dogs.

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