Fireworks and Noise Phobias

How is this problem treated?

The best approach to this problem is to change the dog’s perception of the noises using the behavioural modification techniques of desensitisation and counter-conditioning.  The details of how to do this should be provided with the sound recording CDs that are commercially available, but the quality of the instructions varies considerably between products.  It is therefore important to look for a CD that has comprehensive and easy to follow instructions. Research has shown that those products with clear instructions are associated with better results.  Even when you purchase a quality CD you may need professional help structuring your programme for your individual dog and you should not be afraid to ask for further assistance.  Training will normally take a few weeks so you do need to be patient. Useful information and products are available at the “Sounds Scary” website.

When is the best time to start treatment?

Treatment is likely to be more successful if your dog is not exposed to the real sound stimulus during the behavioural modification programme.  It is therefore best to start treatment at a time of year when the problem noises, such as fireworks or thunderstorms, are unlikely to be encountered.

How do I carry out a desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme?

First you need to identify an area in which your dog can relax. Use somewhere that is otherwise quiet in the house and away from large windows etc. It should not be the place that your dog currently runs to when it is scared, as this will have unpleasant associations.  It may be useful to use a Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) diffuser to help your dog to relax. This should be plugged in for a few days before you start the treatment programme within the area that you have identified as your dog’s den.  It should remain on for the whole duration of the training programme and possibly during the first stressful season. During the first stage of treatment it is important for your dog to be relaxed and it may therefore help to take him for a good walk or play and exercise session before you plan to start the treatment. It can also help to train your dog to sit and relax on command as you can then get your dog to relax when you are ready to start the treatment. Once your dog is obviously relaxed either spontaneously, or through command, you are ready to begin the treatment process.

How do I organise desensitisation?

It is important to start off with a noise recording at a volume that does not elicit any distress.  The starting sound is likely to be below audible levels for humans since dog hearing is considerably more sensitive than our own.  It is therefore important to start with the CD player at zero volume and use the movement of your dog’s ear flap as the sign that the sound has become detectable for your dog.  Ideally you want the ear flap to just move when your dog hears the sound and if he goes on to lift his head then you have increased the volume too far.When your dog’s ear flap begins to move you should leave the volume of the CD at that level until the ear is stationary again. You can then increase the volume until ear flap movement begins again and repeat this process over and over again.

How long should a training session be?

It is important that you do not persist with the exposure for too long as you run the risk that something will distract your dog and cause him to come out of the relaxed state.  It is important you always end a session on a positive note with a clear association between the sound and the state of relaxation.  It is therefore better to train little and often rather than try to achieve too much in one session.

When do I restart training?

This depends very much on the individual dog and your own circumstances.  It can be as short a time as an hour or as long as the next day.  It is important, however, not to leave too long a gap between training sessions.

What happens in the new session?

The new session is started with the level of noise that was reached at the end of the previous session but this is then increased slightly.  You need to bear in mind that it is important not to go beyond the point when your dog may notice the sound and react with anything more significant than movement of the ear flap.  If your dog exhibits any behaviour, such as lifting the head or attempting to leave the room, it is important to go back several steps and start with the noise at a much lower volume. Keep repeating the process, increasing the volume only slightly at a rate your dog can cope with.  The aim is to reach the stage where your dog continues to lie in a relaxed state with his ears stationary even when the CD is playing at a reasonable volume.  There is no need to increase the volume to excessive levels since the aim of desensitisation is simply to associate a relaxed and neutral emotional state with the presence of the previously feared sound stimulus.

What does counter conditioning involve?

The second phase of the treatment process involves forming a positive emotional association with the sounds. In order to achieve this the CD is played during activities that your dog finds pleasurable, such as eating and playing.  You should wait until your dog is engaged in a pleasurable activity and then start the CD at zero volume.  Gradually increase the volume until your dog shows the slightest sign that it has heard the noise.  Keep the noise at this volume until your dog is no longer responding in any way and then gradually increase the volume again.  You do not want your dog to stop its activity or to show any signs of a negative response to the sound and if this happens you have increased the volume too quickly and will need to go back a stage.  The aim is for the noise to play in the background while your dog engages in a pleasurable activity so that the emotional state induced by the game or the eating is paired with the presence of the sound.

How long will this training programme take?

The programme will typically take a few weeks but it can take longer than that to reach full volume.  Do not be tempted to rush things, especially during the first phase of desensitisation, as it is very important to have a good foundation of relaxation association before starting on the counter conditioning.  Eventually your dog should remain relaxed in the presence of normal intensity noises and then he is ready to form positive associations with the sounds.  Once you have reached this point it is important to reinforce the positive response to the sounds on an occasional basis.

How often do I have to do this revision programme?

Initially, it is worth repeating the programme at least once a week until you reach the first firework or thunder season.  Assuming your dog copes well during this period you should just repeat the latter part of the exercise (the counter conditioning) every 4-6 months.  Do not expect your dog to remember everything until the next big party!

What should I do if I don’t appear to be making any progress?

If you seem to be having any problems, consult your veterinary practice for further advice or help.  It is not uncommon for owners to need professional help to resolve this problem. Sometimes sound sensitivity may be associated with both medical and more general psychological problems which will need to be assessed.  If your dog also suffers from problems when he is left alone, it is best to seek professional advice from the outset.  Also if you are concerned at the intensity of your dog’s problem, seek professional advice as drug therapy to help during the behavioural therapy may be required.  However, drugs will not cure your dog, they are merely an aid to the treatment that can safeguard his welfare.

What happens if I haven’t managed to get my dog trained in time?

This is not an uncommon problem and we have an additional fact sheet that gives advice as to how to manage your dog’s fear or phobia during an unavoidable period of exposure to the problem noises.