Browsing tag: noise desensitisation program

Preparing for Fireworks – with Sound?

Firework fears are one of the commonest behavioural issues we see in practice – unsurprisingly, a lot of dogs spend the week on either side of Bonfire Night terrified.

In almost every case, this is because of the noise – a sudden, sharp and loud sound, with no obvious warning (from the dog’s point of view). Although a few dogs are afraid of the light show, it’s pretty rare – it’s usually about the sound. The dog’s natural dislike of loud noises is worsened because we get really excited about fireworks, and tend to jump around, shout and exclaim loudly. We know that’s because we’re enjoying the display – but dogs often get the wrong end of the stick and think we’re alarmed, or scared ourselves. Therefore, in their mind, it must be something truly terrifying if humans are afraid of it too.

There are a number of different options to manage firework fear in dogs (behavioural techniques, Adaptil pheromones, various calming products, and if necessary, anti-anxiety medication from your vet). However, there’s one really effective option that is rarely used to its maximum extent. This is Sound Desensitisation. The principle is to help your dog to learn that the scary bangs and crashes aren’t anything to worry about. Part of the problem is that fireworks are a rare and special event – a couple of weeks in the autumn, and again over the New Year, and that’s about it for most people (OK, if you’re in the US, or have American neighbours, maybe in the early summer too – but that’s still only three times a year). As a result, firstly the dogs never get used to it, and secondly, we’re perhaps a little bit too inclined just to manage our pets’ anxiety, rather than try to treat it at the source.

Sound desensitisation is a essentially a process of habituation – the noise becomes a normal part of the background to daily life, and the dog learns to ignore it. This is how it works:

1)      As early as possible, start exposing your dog to very, very quiet firework sounds – ideally, a mixture of rockets, bangs and multiple explosions. There are a number of excellent commercial CDs and mp3 downloads – but you could use any suitable soundtrack, such as the video link here: Fireworks in action.

2)      To begin with, play it at the minimum volume your computer, tablet, or phone can manage.

3)      Act completely normally while it’s playing through – get on with your normal day, and leave it playing as background (the embedded video is about 13 minutes long, and you’ll want to run it through completely once if not two or three times each session). This may be difficult, especially if your dog is suspicious, but if you start it on the very lowest volume settings, they may jump, but they’re not likely to have a meltdown. Even if they do, however, as far as possible act normally. Don’t lavish them with extra fuss, or give them special treats – it is very important that they see this as just a normal part of the day. Of course, they should have a safe den to hide in, if necessary, but hopefully it won’t be needed.

4)      Every day or two, increase the volume by one or two clicks – but continue to behave normally yourself. The aim is to build it up to a noise level similar to the actual display before Bonfire Night – but very, very gradually.

5)      If you reach a volume where your dog is showing signs of genuine fear, reduce the volume a little, and keep it there for a few more days. Then start to increase it again.

6)      Eventually, the vast majority of dogs will learn that firework noises are a normal part of life, and nothing to get too upset about.

A few dogs have such deep-rooted phobias that desensitisation on its own isn’t enough – in these cases, have a chat with your vet, as some anti-anxiety medication may be useful as an adjunct; or speak to a good canine behaviourist – your vet will be able to recommend one.

However, for the vast majority of dogs, this is an effective way to treat and prevent noise phobias – but you need to start as early as possible – ideally several months before Bonfire Night.

Good luck to everyone with dogs suffering from sound phobias!

David Harris BVSc MRCVS

Ask a Vet Online – ‘I have got 2 staffies 1 is afraid to go out at night even on a lead. How can I help him?’

Question from Anji Bradley

I have got 2 staffies 1 is afraid to go out at night even on a lead. How can I help him.He stopped going out after he heard a car back-fire and he thought it was a firework.

Answer from Shanika Winters MRCVS, Online Vet

Hi Anji, thank you for your question about your dog’s fear of going out at night. What you are describing would fit with being a noise phobia.

What is a noise phobia?

Noise phobia is a fear response which is triggered when a particular sound is heard, in this case banging sounds similar to those produced by fireworks.  Dogs are intelligent animals and soon make associations to a stimulus, in this case the stimulus is a sound and the response associated with it is a reluctance to go out for walks in the night for fear of hearing the scary sound.

From what you have described I have assumed that your dog already was fearful of fireworks prior to hearing the car back-fire.  If this is the case then hopefully the following will be useful information.

How can I help my dog with his noise phobia?

In order to deal with a noise phobia you will need the help of your vet or someone trained in dog behaviour and plenty of patience.

Having personal experience of a noise phobic dog (my old border collie Jack who was frightened of fireworks and thunder storms) and having used a desensitisation program I can definitely recommend giving it a go.

So what is a desensitisation program?

The aim is to get your pet to stop showing a fear response to the stimulus in question using a controlled program of exposure to the scary stimulus plus or minus the use of behaviour modifying medications.

The desensitisation part is reducing the dog’s reaction, the controlled exposure to the sound is by use of recordings e.g. CD or MP3 and behaviour modifying medications include drugs similar to Valium (Diazepam) and antidepressants.

The recording of the scary sound is played at a time when an actual scary sound is unlikely to be heard, starting with very short exposure and at a very low volume. Gradually the length of exposure, frequency and volume are all increased, provided at the previous session the dog did not show a fear response. The aim is that eventually the dog can hear the scary sound without showing a fear response.

What are signs of fear and or distress in the dog?

Dogs all express fear in different ways but the following list includes many of the common signs; cowering, panting, excessive salivation, vocalising, hiding, jumping up and trying to run away.

What are the chances of success with a desensitisation program?

It is difficult to predict how well a dog will respond to noise phobia treatment, but unless the noise itself can be totally avoided then it is worth trying the treatment.  It is worth keeping in mind that the desensitisation program may need to be repeated to ensure that the fear response is kept under control. In the case of fire work phobia it is best to start the program at least 6 months away from peak firework season to allow plenty of time for it to take effect before the dog is exposed to the scary sound. This is because unexpected scary sounds exposure outside of the controls of the program can set your dog back to square one, so good timing can help ensure you and your dog’s best chance of successful treatment.

In conclusion phobias are a difficult thing to treat, but with patience and help, most animals will see a great improvement to their quality of life. I hope that you have found this answer helpful and good luck with treating your dog’s phobia.

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