How to Deal With Dogs That Have a Phobia of Loud Noises 

NOTES:

  1. For tips on how to prevent a loud noise phobia from developing, please see the following Blog post: How to Prevent Loud Noise Phobia from Developing & Early Warning Signs When Choosing a Puppy.
  2. The following training advice is relevant to all loud noise phobias such as thunderstorms, fireworks, vacuum cleaners, large crowds, etc.

 

QUESTION:

Hi Don! I recently purchased and finished watching your Perfect Dog DVDs. I just began to implement the “new rules” with my two Vizslas and the change in their behavior is incredible!

I’m actually a licensed vet technician and I own a dog/cat nutrition store. I will be recommending your program to all of my customers for the sake of educating the owners while helping their dogs.

I was wondering if you have any suggestions on dogs with storm phobias? My male goes into panic mode during thunderstorms to the point where he’s so terrified he doesn’t respond. He just hyperventilates and looks past me.

I don’t coddle him or tell him it’s ok. I have actually told him “No” when he starts to become anxious and I ignore him, but nothing completely solves the problem. I would love any insight as storm season is coming soon.

Thank you!

 

ANSWER:

I’m so happy to hear of the success you’ve experienced with your two dogs so far! Regarding the dog’s storm issues: It can be a tough situation to deal with when an older dog has a deep-rooted phobia like this. Other types of fears/phobias can be overcome because there are specific physical exercises that can be performed with the dog i.e. where the dog can be rewarded (with praise and play – as per my Nature-Based Discipline, Praise & Play Method) after completing specific exercises in a positive manner, despite their fear. The dog can then build a new foundation of success relating to that issue/situation which helps the dog’s brain to reprogram to a “new normal.”

If your dog’s issue was with walking over bridges, or going up escalators, or meeting strangers in odd hats, etc. then the situation could be seen and dealt with and re-learned. In fact, in my book “Wake Up and Smell the Poop!” (https://dogfather.tv/books/) I even share the details of a dog that was utterly terrified of parked cars (seriously!) and what I did to help that dog quickly overcome his issues. (By the next day the owners called me, astounded at the dog’s progress.) With storms, however, it’s a challenge because there’s nothing that can be directly seen and dealt with. There are loud, invisible noises. It’s dealing with the unknown, and this can be a challenge when an older dog has had years to develop a fearful reaction against them.

The most amazing dog I ever owned had a dreaded fear of fireworks and explosions. By the time I adopted her, this fear had already been well established. On any days of celebration that involved fireworks, I would have to keep her indoors with the radio on loudly to reduce her ability to hear the blasts. She came to me as a lost stray that would have been exposed to Halloween as a 3-month-old pup. I assume she experienced something during that time that established in her a lifelong dread of explosions.

Normally she was a super confident, outgoing dog that I could take anywhere and pretty much teach anything I could dream up that she was physically able to do, yet when it came to fireworks and sharp thunder, she would shake uncontrollably. The one critical thing that was helpful in this was that because I had complete off-leash control over her – and her full respect for me as her leader, whenever something occurred that triggered her fears, she would seek me out and come by side. When I initially trained her, she learned to accept my authority, and part of this submission was accepting she needed to defer to me in all situations – including those that she was unsure of, or afraid of. So, my training shaped and molded a dog that I could trust – I never had to worry about losing her even when it came to storms and fireworks.

You are correct to refrain from comforting your dog and instead tell him “No” whenever the panic starts to set in. By doing this, you’re reinforcing to him that you have the situation in hand – you’re not freaking out and neither should he. However, rather than “No”, I prefer to use the word “Relax” (as you will see me do in my Perfect Dog DVDs when you review them).

Spoken with a mildly assertive tone, “Relax” is actually a command, and it can help immensely in a number of situations. I mostly use it whenever a dog is starting to get overexcited. It subdues the dog. It’s a warning that I’m not going to tolerate any hyperactivity, so he better calm down – quickly.

In your situation with your storm fearing male, “Relax” will indicate to your dog that you’re very aware of what he’s feeling, but you’re not going to sympathize with him. Offering up comfort and sympathetic messages would only encourage the problem. You need to show your dog you’re staying strong in the circumstances and he can fully trust in your leadership.

I wish there was some more practical advice I could offer to help you with this issue. I could suggest playing ball with your dog during a storm, hoping that the distraction of fun and exercise would make him forget his negative emotions, but in this kind of case where there is a clear, deeply rooted fear of thunderstorms, you might have to simply enclose your dog in a room (furthest away from the noise with the windows closed and curtains shut) and put on some soothing music for him. There are some calming pet-specific CDs that can be purchased in stores or online that you might want to consider. Some are better than others. Browse the customer reviews to help determine which set would be best.

– Don Sullivan, “The DogFather”

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