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

When and what to watch for

Clients can be taught to recognize the signs of noise reactivity and developing phobia if they're asked to routinely screen their dogs for such reactions. Given that an abnormal response to noise may predispose animals to other behavioral conditions and given the established comorbidity between noise and other anxiety-related diagnoses, all veterinarians should screen for noise reactivity and phobia at each visit. (See for a checklist that can be used in a veterinary office, particularly the sections on "Reactions to noises and absences" and "Reactions to noise.")

Additionally, when a client brings in a puppy or newly acquired dog for a wellness examination, the veterinarian should ask if there's a history of worrisome noise reactions in that dog's family (if known) and, if so, warn the client the dog may be at increased risk for noise reactivity and phobia. We know these conditions are especially common in herding breeds, but veterinarians also should screen other breeds.

The key to treating these types of phobic reactions is to address them early in their development. Left untreated, these problems—without exception—become worse. We now know there are inherited forms of noise reactivity and phobias, although the mechanisms by which the complex molecular change occurs is not understood.1-3 It appears that an alteration in how information is processed is a component. So if you know that at least one parent reacted to storms and other noises, expect the puppy will react similarly or look for signs that may put the pup at risk. The same tools we use to treat noise reactivity and phobia can help prevent it from developing further if caught early in a dog with a known familial risk.

Data indicate that if a dog has storm or noise phobia, it may be more at risk for developing separation anxiety and possibly other anxiety-related conditions.4 The signs of noise phobia and separation anxiety can be the same: trembling, salivation, defecation, urination, destruction, escape, panting and vocalization. Not all dogs exhibit all signs or with equal intensity. Some signs cluster together more frequently than others, although the neurochemical significance of this is currently unknown. Interestingly, in the population of dogs we've studied, the behaviors dogs exhibit when distressed differ by breed, with the most obvious difference being that German shepherds pace more than border collies or Australian cattle dogs.1,2

We do know that the more signs the animal exhibits and the longer the phobia has been ongoing, the worse the case (until the conditions for a fully developed phobia are met). In the herding dogs studied, very few were mildly affected. Rather, most are truly phobic about specific classes of noises. However, the ages of the affected dogs when they're assessed may play a role, because in our ongoing study of the behavioral genetics of noise reactivity and phobia, we have virtually no young dogs.

The average age of the dogs studied and sampled and whose data have been analyzed to date was 58 months for Australian cattle dogs, 79.95 months for border collies and 42.85 months for German shepherds. It has long been recognized that anxiety-related conditions become apparent or worsen as the dog moves through social maturity (onset is 12 to 24 months; conclusion is 8 to 36 months, by most estimates).5-7

Finally, our data also support the generalization concept: If a dog reacts to one noise, it's more likely to react to others. In our population, Australian cattle dogs that reacted to storms had a 0.95 probability of reacting to fireworks and a 0.75 probability of reacting to guns. For border collies it was 0.96 and 0.84, respectively, and for German shepherds, 0.69 and 0.69. Clearly, early intervention and treatment are essential if we are to protect the welfare of these patients.