Noise reactivities and phobias in dogs: Behavior modification strategies

Noise reactivities and phobias in dogs: Behavior modification strategies

How to recognize problems and implement appropriate client interventions
Dec 01, 2010

In dogs, excessive reactions to sudden noises, such as those produced during thunderstorms, are relatively common. But not all canine responses to storms and other loud noises, including fireworks, are the same. For example, some involve greater vigilance and reactivity, others involve avoidance behaviors or fear and some are indicators of outright panic.

If a dog retreats from everything that moves, that constitutes an abnormal behavior that's maladaptive. (Diane Collins and Jordan Hollender/Getty Images)
A fear response may include perfectly normal fearful behaviors but in a context in which they're inappropriate. For example, a dog retreating from a snake may exhibit both appropriate and adaptive behavior. Dogs that live in regions with venomous species may be on the alert for snakes and shy away from them when they see movement associated with them. This same behavior may occur if grass moves because someone stepped on a stick simply because the movement was similar enough to look like a moving snake. Here, the dog's behavior is a mistake in interpretation or context. But if a dog retreats from everything that moves, that constitutes an abnormal behavior that's maladaptive.

This example illustrates one of the important aspects of abnormal or pathologic fear—generalization. Untreated, the foci of the fearful response may increase, and this generalization is one pattern we see in dogs that begin to react inappropriately and undesirably to noises.

Phobia defined

Fears usually manifest as graded responses, with the intensity of the response proportional to the proximity (or the perception of the proximity) of the stimulus. An immediate, excessive anxiety response that results in extremely fearful behaviors (e.g., catatonia, panic) is called a phobia.

Fears may develop gradually, and there may be variation in response. In contrast, phobias usually develop quickly, and once they develop, there is little change in their presentation between bouts. It's been postulated that once a phobic event has been experienced, any event associated with it or the memory of it is sufficient to generate the response. Phobia-inducing situations are either avoided at all costs or, if unavoidable, are endured with intense anxiety or distress.

Noise phobia, of which storm phobias constitute one class, is defined as a sudden and profound, nongraded, extreme response to noise, manifested as intense, active avoidance; escape; or anxiety behaviors associated with the activities of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Behaviors can include catatonia or mania concomitant with decreased sensitivity or responsiveness to pain or social stimuli. Once fully developed, repeated exposure results in an invariant pattern of response.

Storm phobia in particular is defined as an extreme response to any attribute associated with the type of storms to which the dog is exposed (e.g., thunder, lightning, darkness, wind, ozone, barometric changes). Unfortunately, dogs that freeze and withdraw from situations are often viewed as less affected by storms and noises than are those that throw themselves through windows or chew their way through enclosures. Any dog that panics is suffering profoundly and undergoing neurocytotoxic damage, so the humane choice is intervention.