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San Diego Humane Society

Behavior Challenges: Decreasing Fear of Loud Noises

Thunder, fireworks or other loud sounds often scare dogs, even if a dog hasn’t had a negative experience tied to the loud noise. These types of fear-related problems can be helped, but they may worsen if left untreated.

Fear Responses

The most common reactions to loud noises are destruction and attempts to flee. When dogs becomes frightened, they will instinctually try to reduce their fear. They may try to escape to a place where the sounds of thunder or firecrackers are less intense. If this method of escape is effective in calming the dog and reducing fear, then the escape is reinforced.

For some dogs, just the activity or physical exertion associated with fleeing and destruction may be an outlet for their anxiety. Unfortunately, fleeing and/or destructive behavior can be a problem for you and may result in physical injury or loss of your dog.

When your dog is startled by a sound, they may start to associate other aspects of the environment to their fear. For example, dogs who are afraid of thunder may later become afraid of the wind, dark clouds and the lightning that often precedes the sound of thunder. Dogs who are afraid of firecrackers may become afraid of the person holding them or become afraid to go into the yard where they’ve seen them. Over time these fearful reactions can transform into unwanted behavior if unaddressed.

What You Can Do To Help

Create a Safe Place

Your dog will appreciate a place to go when they hear noises that frighten them. If possible, choose a safe space where your dog naturally goes to seek comfort. If they are trying to get inside the house, create open access to a dog door. If your dog feels safe under your bed, give them access to your bedroom. Once you establish a safe space, you can add a fan or radio to help block frightening noises. Encourage your dog to go to this space when you’re home and the thunder or other noises occur. Use treats and food to associate a positive reaction in their safe space as well. Make sure that your dog can come and go freely from their safe space — they should not feel confined or trapped.

Distract Your Dog

A safe space will work for most dogs, but some dogs require activity when they are frightened. When your dog begins to show signs of anxiety, encourage them to engage in any activity that captures their attention and distracts them from behaving fearfully. Once your dog has acknowledged the frightening sound, try to interest them in an established activity that they enjoy. You can play fetch with their favorite ball in an escape-proofed area. Make sure to give your dog lots of praise and treats as they pay attention and follow commands.

If loud noises, such as a storm, continue to build, you may not be able to keep their attention on the activity. A distraction will help delay any fearful behavior if it cannot curb it completely. If you can’t keep your dog’s attention, you should stop the distraction process. If you continue, you may inadvertently reinforce some fearful behaviors.

Behavior Modification

Behavior modification methods called counter-conditioning and desensitization can be successful in reducing fears and phobias by teaching your dog to respond in non-fearful ways to noises that would previously have frightened them.

How to:

  • Record the sounds of thunder or fireworks.
  • Play the recording at a low volume so that your dog doesn’t respond fearfully. During this time, reward your dog with food, a treat or a game.
  • On the next occasion, repeat the process with the recording at a slightly higher volume.
  • Continue increasing the recording volume through ongoing sessions, over a period of several weeks or months. If at any time your dog displays fearful behavior, STOP. Resume your next session at a lower volume that doesn’t produce anxiety and proceed slowly.

When to Consult a Professional

If your dog has severe fears and phobias, and you’re unable to achieve success with the techniques outlined here, you should consult with an animal behavior specialist or your veterinarian. Medication may be available that can make your dog less anxious for short time periods. Your veterinarian is the only person who is licensed and qualified to prescribe medication for your dog. (Don’t attempt to give your dog any over-the-counter or prescription medication without consulting your veterinarian. Animals don’t respond to drugs the same way people do, and a medication that may be safe for humans could be fatal to your dog.) Drug therapy on its own won’t reduce fears and phobias permanently, but a combination of medication and behavior modification can be effective in extreme cases.

What Not to Do

  • Don’t crate your dog during a thunderstorm. Your dog will likely still be afraid and could injure themselves trying to escape the crate.
  • Don’t punish your dog for inappropriate behavior when they are afraid. Punishment is not a successful way to modify fearful behaviors and could lead to worsened phobias and behavior.
  • Don’t force your dog into a situation or environment with frightening noises. This could lead to aggressive behavior in your dog’s attempt to escape the situation.
  • Don’t try to curb your dog’s fearful behavior — rather than adjusting their responses to fear. This could also lead to other unwanted behaviors, such as digging, scratching, barking and yowling.

Obedience classes won’t make your dog less afraid of thunder or other noises, but they can help boost their general confidence.

Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. San Diego Humane Society adopters can fill out the Post Adoption Consultation form to schedule their troubleshooting session. We aim to respond within 7 days, but responses may take up to 2 weeks. Thank you for your patience!

Note: Due to the potential for serious injury, canine and feline aggression are best handled by a professional who specializes in aggressive behaviors. Because phone or email counseling is inadequate for addressing serious behavior concerns, we ask that you contact a qualified professional for help. Please refer to the list of behavior resources here.

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Please visit our website for a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961. 

View Training Classes   Gift a Training Class


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