Noise phobia is a common problem in dogs and can be triggered by a single experience or prolonged exposure to overwhelming sounds.
New noise phobias can develop in dogs of any age. This happened recently with one of my own dogs. Yes, the Evil Dishwasher Monster was discovered in our midst.
Our five-year-old English Lab Talley had an anxious temperament in general. But she began to display some rather bizarre behaviors—running hiding and isolating herself in a favored cave.
She spent entire evenings upstairs, wedged into her behind the bed cave. Overall she became increasingly depressed and less playful. Upset with her discomfort we began searching for a behavioral cause.
I noticed her looking anxious and vigilant when I was putting dishes into the dishwasher. The dishwasher diagnosis was confirmed when Talley bolted from the living room corner cave to the bedroom cave when the running dishwasher jolted loudly.
In my old home, I washed dishes by hand. A dishwasher was a novel experience for Talley. I felt supremely inadequate for failing to identify the source sooner.
Thinking back, other clues added up to the overall picture. During the period of excessive anxiety, Talley had a repeat bout of colitis, which, my vet agreed, can be triggered by stress.
Whether it was related or not, there were blocked anal glands thrown in, just for fun!
There is a cure
Fortunately, once noise phobias are identified to a specific trigger, they can be successfully modified. With her anxious temperament in general, it was not surprising to me that Talley developed this phobia. If left untreated, as referred to by Dr. Karen Overall, such behavior continues to deteriorate.
Conquering the monster—take it slow
As an Intern with Pat Miller, I learned this about behavior modification, and I have never forgotten; If you think you are going too slow, slow down some more.
With that in mind, you need to have a definite PLAN, to begin modifying behavior in tiny increments.
For instance, I began feeding Talley her meals near the non-running dishwasher. Because she also suffered generalized anxiety, coupled with high levels of stress, my vet and myself agreed that Talley would benefit from Clomicalm, until resolution of the problem. Dr.Karen Overall is a proponent of medication sooner, rather than later, for extreme stress.
The plan of attack
- identify the stressor(s)
- set goals for each training session
- identify desired behaviors
- proceed in tiny increments
Working with Talley
Following are the steps I took with Talley, without going into every minute detail.
NOTE: With every step in your program, you will be ensuring your dog is not over stress threshold, displaying signs of anxiety such as panting out of context, ears back, tail lowered, running away, as examples.
All behavior modification needs to be done within a comfort zone, below or at the stress threshold. Sessions should be short. I urge anyone with a severe issue on their hands to consult a professional trainer.
Core parts of the process
The core of the process is desensitization (frequent exposure to stimulus in controlled environment) and counter-conditioning (pairing an aversive stimulus with GOOD STUFF)
Dishwasher not running
- Begin feeding meals near it. Tricks and play interactions.
- Place kibbles on the floor around the dishwasher, progress to kibbles on an open door.
- Hand targeting towards the dishwasher. Open and close the lid while eating.
- Open close latch while tossing kibbles- Go Find it. Happy happy play.
- Click dial on/off in association with food.
Motor on/off brief intervals of seconds, high value meat, then end with easier tasks with machine off.
Incrementally increase duration (in seconds) of time machine is running, carefully observing for excess stress. (all in association with treats, hand targeting etc) end with happy happy play/trick.
Drawing out session during a meal, alternating hand feeding, kibble toss, higher value treats randomly, hand targeting, tricks.
At this point, Talley was happily tolerating half a cycle without undue stress, ending with play, going outside.
At one point Talley would not return inside when the machine was running. Now she will, staying downstairs instead of fleeing to an upstairs cave. Happy days.
Dogs communicate to us all the time, and bizarre behaviors happen for a reason. My Labs are always giving me a new challenge, allowing me to help others with my experiences.
Seeing our dogs terrified is very upsetting. You can imagine how happy I am to have my bright-eyed playful English Lab restored to her normal self. Happy days are here again.
To our dogs, the offending noises truly are monsters and they rely upon us to make the monsters go away.
General management tips for noise reactive dogs
Yes, I have learned lots about managing the environment, to make life easier for my noise reactive Lab Doobie. Here are some management tools with which you can hang on to your sanity while training new behaviors, and make life easier for your noise reactive dog!
- Classical music played to mask environmental noises can work well.
- Some dogs are afraid of the sound of kitchen appliances. Play music while they are in use, take your dog for a walk, or engage in a game in another part of the house.
- Choose the quietest part of the home to crate your dog while away. Make use of baby gates to confine to a quiet area, and/or to prevent hyper-vigilant patrolling at windows. This latter behavior only serves to steadily increase arousal levels.
- Construction going on in the neighborhood, or at your own home? Consider making use of doggy daycare during these times. I have worked with dogs whose behavior deteriorated during home renovations, due to the stress.
- For dogs with storm phobia, try the new Thundershirt: www.thundershirts.com The compression provided by the garment provides sensory input to the nervous system and has a calming effect.
- Close window blinds to also prevent hyper-vigilant patrolling behaviors.
- Do some training or structured activity while the aversive noise is present, to keep your dog in a cognitive frame of mind. Giving your dog a job to do will allow less focus on the environment.
- Make use of interactive treat toys to also keep your dog in a cognitive frame of mind. (tricky treat ball, buster cube, kibble nibble, treat stick, food pyramid, tug-a-jug, to name a few)
- Avoid walking around the block at a busy time of day for traffic. In fact, do your hiking at the quietest place you can find while gradually teaching new behaviors.
- Learn some basic Ttouch bodywork by going to a workshop, or from a certified practitioner. This novel sensory input can be invaluable in achieving a state of relaxation.
Use common sense
These are but a few management solutions for your noise reactive dog. Using common sense and removing dogs from situations that cause stress can help your dog cope, and better learn new behaviors. Remain calm yourself; your dog is already stressed and negative input from humans is the last thing these reactive dogs need! Hugs to your furry friends.
Symptoms To Watch For In Your Dog: Changes In Behavior
Canine Noise Phobias