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Many dog guardians know that certain sounds send their canine companion into a tizzy fit. Some of the common culprits are fireworks, gun sounds, and thunder. Indeed, studies suggest that nearly half, and perhaps as many as three-fourths, of all family dogs are afraid of certain noises and will show at least one behavioral sign of fear when exposed to them. These behavioral signs include trembling, shaking, panting, salivating, hiding, and peeing or pooping in the house. These fear responses are often called noise phobias, particularly when the fear is related to a specific stimulus (such as a thunderstorm) and when the behavioral response is extreme, such as scratching through a wooden door trying to escape.
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People may chuckle when they pop Bubble Wrap and their dog trembles in fright, but noise phobias are no laughing matter. The trembling is a sign of acute stress, and stress, as we know, is bad for your health. When people get genuinely scared, they sometimes joke that it “just took a year off my life!” Well, there is some truth to this, and we should take these fears seriously. Our dogs deserve it.
To help reduce the chance that noise phobias will develop, we can avoid exposing puppies to frightening sounds, and we can socialize puppies to a wide variety of sounds. There’s some evidence that early exposure to a frightening sound increases the risk of developing a related phobia, so as much as possible, protect puppies from sudden or loud noises. Then, some people also find that gradual desensitization to a scary sound can help prevent phobias and, in some cases, help a dog move past their fears. As part of their puppy socialization classes, the Humane Society of Boulder Valley (Colorado) includes a gradual exposure to the sound of fireworks. A very soft recording of fireworks popping is played in the background while the puppies are given a constant stream of treats and praise. Each week the volume is increased just a bit. The puppies don’t even notice the fireworks because they are so interested in getting treats and playing with the other puppies.
Despite these efforts, dogs may still develop aversions to certain sounds, and we must do our best to protect our friends from them. In addition, noise sensitivity can be an indicator of pain, so when dogs show fear or anxiety with loud noises, a visit to the veterinarian may be in order. In extreme cases, dogs with noise phobias may need to see a behavioral specialist. Prescription medications may help relieve anxiety in some dogs, and they could be used prophylactically in situations where people cannot control the source of a noise, such as thunderstorms and July Fourth fireworks.
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