Celia Haddon - Cat Expert

Understanding animals through their behaviour


By Jon Bowen BVetMed MRCVS DipAS(CABC) director of Sound Therapy 4 Pets Ltd and clinician in charge of the Royal Veterinary College’s behavioural medicine referral service. www.soundtherapy4pets.com

How common is sound phobia in the UK?

A 2005 report produced for the RSPCA gave an indication of the extent of the noise phobia problem in dogs in the UK, with around 49% of dogs having a fear of sounds, and 45% reacting to fireworks. The other common fears were of gunshots and thunder.

Is my dog phobic, or just fearful of fireworks?

Fear and phobia are not the same thing. Fear is proportionate to the level of threat, and it goes away soon after the danger has passed. It protects dogs from doing things that might cause them harm, such as walking out in front of traffic. Dogs with phobic fear will be anxious when there is any hint of the thing they are phobic of. Their emotional reaction will be very intense and they may take hours to recover after the threat has passed.

Phobia has a profound impact on the dog’s quality of life, preventing it from doing things that it needs to do. For example, phobic dogs may be reluctant to go on walks after dark or they may bolt for home when they hear a distant firework noise

Clearly, most of the dogs identified as afraid of loud noises in the RSPCA study could not be severe enough to class as phobic. More evidence was needed to provide detail on the range and level of fear of loud noises in the UK dog population.

So, over the last two years, Jaume Fatjo and I have been researching noise phobia in dogs. Our first step was to develop a validated online questionnaire that would give us an independent measure of how fearful a dog was of loud noises.

We then profiled a population of dogs in the UK, to see what the range of fear was. We found that about 10% of the UK dog population suffers from a fear of loud noises that is severe enough to classify as phobic. Interestingly, this is similar to the overall rate of phobias in the human population.

We developed the questionnaire to the level that we could use it as a diagnostic tool with our clients, so that we could assess severity and response to treatment.

With sponsorship from CEVA Animal Health (the makers of Adaptil©), this questionnaire is now available to all dog owners online

You can find the questionnaire here: http://surveys.ethometrix.com/s3/CEVAssq

It takes about 5 minutes to complete, and at the end you will have a personalised assessment of your dog’s problem and some advice on what to do. You will get scores for behavioural signs of stress, physical signs of stress and coping behaviour, together with an evaluation of whether your dog is mildly, moderately or severely affected (i.e. phobic).

If you repeat the test after you have introduced some changes or done some treatment, you can see whether your dog is getting better or worse and therefore whether the treatment has worked.

Does fear of loud noises get better or worse over time?

There is a tendency for dogs that are afraid of loud noises to become more fearful of them over time. This was confirmed in the RSPCA study. In our studies, we found that the most critical factor in whether dogs got worse over time was the owner’s reaction.

Dogs that had a suitable hiding place that they could go to during firework events were more likely to get better over time. Dogs were more likely to get worse over time if their owners actively prevented them from hiding. So, the intention to toughen the dog by “making it face up to its fears” has been shown to be wrong.

Dogs that are always able to hide and feel safe are actually less likely to spend time hiding; they have the confidence to behave normally because they know that if things get tough they always have somewhere to get away from the loud noises.

Apart from indicating severity of fear, the online question we developed provides a score for “coping behaviour”. We found that this score gives a good indication of whether the dog had a sufficiently comforting hiding place. Dogs with high scores for coping behaviour are those that need a better place to hide.

How can we help dogs that suffer from fears and phobias?

For short term help coping with Firework day read the article on Help for your dog on Firework day.

Dogs that have a mild or moderate fear of loud noises need to be given a place to hide that is accessible at all times. Behavioural therapy, using desensitisation and counter-conditioning will help to reduce their fear. Moderately fearful dogs are likely to need an Adaptil© diffuser close to the hiding place, to increase their sense of security.

Severely affected dogs not only need a hiding place and behavioural therapy, they may also need treatment with long-term medication to reduce their fear. The only UK-licensed drug for treating noise phobia at the present is Selgian©.

Behavioural therapy

As dogs develop fears and phobias they accumulate bad experiences of fear associated with loud noises. Imagine the effect if we could provide the dog with neutral or positive experiences that would gradually cancel out these bad memories. Slowly the dog would lose its fear and react less to the noises.

This is precisely the method that we use to treat fears and phobias, using techniques of desensitisation and counter-conditioning.

Desensitisation is a very simple technique in which we expose the dog to the same sounds that it is frightened of, but at a sound level that is below that required to produce fear. As the dog becomes used to a [particular sound level we then gradually increase the volume. This process can take several weeks, but it is very effective if done correctly and using the right kinds of recordings.

During counter-conditioning we then train the dog to associate these previously fearful noises with something it likes, such as food or a game. This is done very simply by playing the noise just before and during feeding or play. Dogs make this kind of link very rapidly, which is why so many of them rush over and start salivating every time they hear us opening a packet of biscuits! This second stage is called counter-conditioning, and changes the dog’s reaction from neutral to happy.

The way that we do this kind of treatment is very important, as is the kind of sound recording that we use. Our simple CD known as Sounds Scary, available from www.soundtherapy4pets.com, works well. In a trial Sounds Scary produced significant improvements in more than 90% of dogs within 8 weeks.  You may find this long term treatment easier with the help of a proper pet behaviour counsellor.

Does my dog need medication?

Severely affected dogs can become so fearful of noises that they start to react to everyday sounds, or won’t go to certain places or won’t go out after dark. Behavioural therapy is essential for these dogs, but they may also need some kind of drug therapy.

Certain illnesses, such as senility and hormonal imbalances, can cause dogs to become more anxious and fearful. Treating these illnesses may resolve a problem without resorting to behavioural therapy at all. So it is important to have your dog checked thoroughly by your vet before starting any kind of treatment, especially if your dog’s problem has become suddenly and inexplicably worse.



These notes are my copyright. I am also usually happy to have the exact words reproduced on websites, in return for a link, my name, and if permission is asked beforehand. I like to check the websites where it might be used. Email me via this website for permission which will usually be given. Organisations wishing to use them in print should contact me via this website. Copyright © 2007 Celia Haddon. All Rights Reserved.

Safety notice.

All normal safety precautions should be taken when dealing with animals. The advice in this section should be taken only at the owner’s own risk. All sick animals should be seen by a vet.

General advice of the kind found in this website is no substitute for an individual consultation with a vet or qualified behaviourist working on a vet’s referral.

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