BOOM! Sometimes ‘Da Bomb’ Isn’t All That Great - Sound Sensitivity in Dogs, an Interview with the Vets at Hawthorne Hills

Andrea Stone CCS CDW

Fireworks? EEK!
With summer fun and anticipated holidays arriving on our near horizon, one of the last things on any of our minds is whether or not our dogs can cope with loud noises. However each of us should, especially with newly adopted or young pets, stop to ask ourselves, “Is my dog afraid of loud noises?”

Most of us have owned or at least known a dog that was afraid of thunder, fireworks or other strange, loud sounds. What can we do to help these pups? Ask any trainer and they will tell you the best course of action when dealing with sound sensitivity in our canine friends is desensitization and counter-conditioning (a.k.a. D & C). In other words, the kindest thing we can do is train our dogs to not only not be afraid of loud noises but that indeed loud noises mean something wonderful is coming their way.

This is usually done by introducing the scary thing at a tolerable level and pairing it with something the dog loves; food is often the most powerful and easily used reward. This method, while very effective, does take time and dedication. There are no short cuts to this type of training.

And of course we need to realize our fuzzy friends have a problem to begin with! It’s easy to miss, especially for those of us who are first time dog owners or simply didn’t notice some of the early warning signs in our pups. Dogs that shy away or spook at loud sounds, or perhaps even just flinch may be sound sensitive. Unfortunately if you discover this shortly before the Fourth of July there is simply not enough time to complete an adequate D&C program. Sometimes sound sensitivity develops; this is not entirely unusual in older pups and adolescent dogs.

Avoidance, leaving town for the Fourth rather than sticking around for the celebration, is a good option. If it’s too late to train for it, you can simply not put the dog into the “scary” situation. For thunder sensitive dogs particularly however, this may not be possible. Weather has a way of being unpredictable! There are other options that help, such as products like the Thunder Shirt and Anxiety Wrap, but these are not always effective enough in the immediate face of a frightening event for our dogs.

So what is a pet owner to do?

Many seek veterinary assistance, such as the use of sedatives like Acepromazine, a commonly prescribed tranquilizer in animals. Here to help answer some questions about it and other medications are Dr. Riedinger and Dr.Eskesen of Hawthorne Hills Veterinary Hospital.

This is the first section of our questions and answers with Dr.Riedinger and Dr.Eskesen of Hawthorn Hills Veterinary Hospital about helping our pets who are sound sensitive to cope with holidays like the Fourth of July. Thank you to the doctors for graciously taking the time out of their busy schedules.

When behavior modification is not possible (due to time constraints, etc) what do you recommend for sound sensitive dogs during holidays like the Fourth of July?
The best approach for noise sensitive dogs is multi-modal [uses more than one method] and utilizes changes in the environment, behavioral modification, use of pheromones and often medications. We encourage owners to start early and work with a veterinarian or skilled trainer to desensitize and counter-condition the dogs to the noises that trigger their panic. An important part of the long term success is to find the best solution for each dog; because not all patients respond the same it can take weeks to months to address the issues. Untreated noise phobias do not spontaneously improve so doing nothing is not appropriate.

In situations where the dogs are still noise reactive specific medications like Alprazolam, or Diazepam, can be used because they work fairly quickly to lower the panic response. It is also essential to provide the dog a place that is away from the noise (like a basement), or move them to another physical location where the noise is not heard, and ensure that it is a safe location so that they don’t hurt themselves. Using ear plugs or cotton to dampen noises, white noise like radios or TV, Anxitane (a product which contains the active ingredient in green tea and has been shown to decrease anxiety in dogs and cats) and pheromones (D.A.P. which has been shown in studies to reduce the fear response in dogs) all provide benefit. A combination approach is very useful.

It is also important to not inadvertently reinforce your pet’s anxiety. Recognize the anxiety signs early – panting, whining, climbing on you, pacing, drooling, barking - ignore the anxious behaviors and have your pet go to their favorite “safe” location. Reward calm behaviors with treats and praise. Definitely do not pet or talk soothingly to your dog during the anxious moments as this can unintentionally teach them that what they are doing is appropriate.** Just as with people, telling a pet to not be afraid seldom works; they need to feel unafraid. Some dogs can feel less anxious if you engage them in an activity that they really enjoy. It is hard to be fearful and happy at the same time.

This is Part 3 of our three part article featuring a Q&A with the helpful veterinarians at Hawthorn Hills Veterinary hospital, Dr.Riedinger and Dr.Eskesen. We thank them for their time! How do tranquilizers and sedatives work?
Tranquilizers, such as Acepromazine, work to depress the brain functions and cause relaxation and sedation. They do not however, have any effect on decreasing anxiety. Pets with noise reactions almost always are exhibiting a fear response. Sedating them doesn’t take away the anxiety or panic they feel. This is why other drugs, that are true anxiolytics, are recommended. They affect the expression or uptake of neurotransmitters in the brain.

Are they safe?
Most of the medications used in dogs are human drugs and do carry some risks. However, used appropriately these risks can be managed. Some anti-anxiety medications such as Clomipramine and Fluoxetine have veterinary tested and approved formulations and are used regularly for dogs with anxiety issues.

Are sedatives and tranquilizers as effective if the pet owner waits until they notice signs that their friend has become anxious before administering it?
They are less likely to be effective. The best long term medications take weeks to work so waiting until the last minute limits the medications that can be used. The medications that work more quickly do not work well in every patient; so waiting until they are showing symptoms of anxiety limits the success.

This is the fourth and final part of "Boom! Sound Sensitivity in Dogs".

Can sedated animals still perceive the “scary” stimulus, e.g. fireworks, thunder, etc?
Yes. With noise phobias, it is not just the noise; it is the other perceived changes in vibrations, barometric pressures (thunderstorms) and the changes in visual cues (lightning, flashes of fireworks) that can trigger the patient’s response.

Sedation alone does not make the dog feel less fearful. A sleepy person who hears a very loud crash or bang at night does not feel less fearful; knowing what made the noise is what allays the fear. Animals can panic in response to noises they don’t understand which is why counter-conditioning becomes very important. If every time the noise occurs good things happen, pretty soon they are not as worried.

Can some tranquilizers* increase sensitivity to noise?
Yes. This is why we recommend trying the medications well in advance of when they will be needed.

Can some animals overcome the tranquilizing effects, particularly pets with sound sensitivity or in the context of loud noises?
Yes; noise reactions trigger panic and medications alone may not be able to control the animal’s response. This is why sedatives are not the best solution.

Are there pets for which certain tranquilizers are not recommended?
Patients who have other health issues, like liver or kidney disease, glaucoma, are pregnant or lactating, and patients who are on some specific medications may not be able to take sedatives or anti-anxiety medications. It is important to check with your veterinarian before starting any treatment plan.

What alternative medications do you suggest, if any?
Longer term daily anti-anxiety medications such as Anxitane, Clomipramine, Amitriptyline or Fluoxetine are solutions. Many patients with noise reactions also have other anxiety issues. It can take time to identify the best solutions for each dog. Again, start early and work closely with your pet’s veterinarian to ensure that you are treating the whole problem.

Several resources which have additional information for clients are and; both have links from our website.

Our sincere thanks go to the doctors for taking time out of their busy schedules to answer these questions. At the end of the day all of us, pet owners, trainers and veterinarians, have a common goal: your pet’s good health!

Remember, if you think your dog might be sound sensitive, start working now! It might be a late start for the Fourth of July but if you’ll be in town for Seafair, your best pal will thank you if you start to help him overcome his fears today.

* Karen Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, “From Leashes to Neurons”, Tawzer videos states Acepromazine can have this effect

**There is some disagreement amongst behaviorists with regards to the potential for anxiety to be reinforced, often depending upon its severity. See Dr.Pat McConnell Ph.D’s article “You Can’t Reinforce Fear”.