Sound sensitivity is one of the most alarming phobias experienced by dogs and their owners. How far back in the modern human-animal relationship this goes, no one knows. Although dogs have an incredible hearing ability involving pitch and distance it is disconcerting that they develop life-threatening panic disorders from certain sounds. It is unexpected and unnatural. Dogs are genetically designed to locate sounds effectively in 6/100 of a second. The dog’s hearing is four times more acute than man, capable of detecting sound waves up to 50,000 MHz, whereas humans can only detect up to 20,000 Mhz. The dog can even distinguish two notes differing by only one eighth of a tone.
Dogs used in disaster relief operations can hear people moving, breathing and talking so deep underground that machines fail to detect the same. Gundogs are bred to be focused, competent and steady while gunshots are going off. Their sensitivity to sound seems to become a detrimental asset when certain breeds with individual dogs become hysterical and demented with fireworks, thunderstorms, gunshots, sirens, alarms, backfiring vehicles etc. It is a fact that bad breeding, inadequate early imprinting and an unnatural environment are the main contributing reasons for the large number of sound sensitive dogs in metropolitan areas. The two most noise phobic breeds in this country, by far, are the Border Collie and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Others that show tendencies are the Maltese and German Shepherd but not to the extent of the former two breeds.
The affected hounds respond to noises in various ways. Some will howl or low in unison with certain sounds. The fearful pet will hyperventilate, exhibit body tremors and a panic stricken face and may just freeze or have a desperation for seeking refuge in dark cupboards, under kitchen sinks or any other place of refuge. The derangement can reach proportions where dogs walk around the house urinating and defaecating. The severely affected cases may develop a dementia and are known to jump through glass windows or doors, dig through wooden doors in a matters of hours, completely trash furniture in an uncontrollable madness, scale the nearest wall, ripping their pads in the process, and running for as long as it takes to escape from the sounds. All the dog is doing is trying to survive the threats.
Breeders play a negligent role in allowing sound sensitive dogs to produce offspring with this genetic predisposition. This common unethical attitude of breeders, whether backyard or registered, creates permanently fearful and stressed dogs, and owners plagued with high anxiety and unnecessary expense for the entire life of the pet. Some dog owners who cannot bear witnessing the sufferance of their pet during fireworks displays or thunderstorms usually opt for euthanasia.
Puppy owners are further negligent in failing to subscribe to socialization classes wherein the young dogs are given the opportunity to develop coping skills and during the training exposed to fireworks, gunshots etc. so that they develop an early positive association to the wide variety of inevitable sounds man has included in the city repertoire. Exposure to the different noises has to be a continuing education, through which the trainer will teach the dog owner how to guide his/her pet through these auditory challenges. If an impressionable puppy or an adult dog confined to the courtyard of a townhouse is suddenly shocked by a frightening sound, echoing and amplified in such an environment, a permanent irreversible traumatic syndrome may occur. This type of dog can be shattered for life. Behaviourists do attempt to counter-condition serious cases but it takes a very long time, is not very reliable and can be costly.
Most people who fail to train their dogs will be ill-equipped in assisting their pets through noise trauma. The most common problem meted out to the potentially fearful dogs is the over-protective nature of soft pet owners. In many instances people reinforce their dog’s fears by comforting them thereby reinforcing the neurosis. Many people predict the noises and pre-empt the experience by conveying panic behaviour to the unsuspecting dog, bringing it indoors and teaching it to be a helpless neurotic.
One of the preventions of sound phobia includes the dog going outdoors with its owner in the thunderstorm, or during fireworks, and sharing it positively, together, by playing games or walking so that the assertiveness of the person and the stimulation of the exercise becomes a confident booster to the pet. Dogs look up to their owners for guidance and it is the character of the person that can make or break the canine companion’s perceptions. If the people are relaxed the dogs relax. If the people are tense the dogs will be tense.
There is a wide variety of treatments for those pooches that have reached the intolerable state. The best advice on this is obtainable from a veterinarian, particularly one that has a special interest in animal behaviour.
The oral medication can vary from over-the-counter naturopathic remedies to prescription psychiatric drugs. Combinations of the two may be used in certain patients. There is no wonder drug for all sound phobic pets. The medication has to be tried out for several weeks to determine the effects, dosage and symptomatic relief.
For indoor dogs an appeasing pheromone in an oil-base can be plugged into the electrical supply of the room allowing the synthetic ingredient to dissipate in the atmosphere of the home with intention of having a calming effect for a selection of behaviour disorders e.g. noise sensitivity, inter-canine aggression, separation anxiety. This can be used in conjunction with the tablets, capsules or powders dispensed by veterinarians.
The only way in which maximum results may be obtained for the pets’ benefit is by keeping them on treatment throughout the rainy season i.e. from September to April. The animals have to be primed by the drugs to cope with the noises. It is hopeless dosing the medicines the day before Guy Fawkes, NewYear or Diwali. The drugs are not sedatives so the pets can be maintained on these products for many months without side-effects.
The tranquillier tablets, acepromazine, for dogs and cats that was dispensed for almost half a century, that used to have a knock-out effect for 2-6 hours, have been discontinued! This drug was highly successful and had to be administered before any panic set in. In principle, it is hopeless administering calming medication while an anxious state is in place; it will either not work or have a delayed effect.
93% of noise phobias involve brontophobia (fear of lightning and thunder). 10-20% involve all other sounds. Most dogs develop symptoms after one year of age. There exists a theory that a pup born at a certain time of the year may be more deleteriously affected. Ideally they should be experiencing the inclement weather, in a positive manner, during the impressionable period of puppyhood i.e. 8-20 weeks.
Walled-in, untrained pets, through social and visual deprivation cannot develop meaningful associations between what they are hearing and what they are mentally assimilating. Houses with palisade or any other fencing from where dogs can experience and visualize the source of noises e.g. vehicles,people talking in the street can markedly increase the pets’ tolerance towards noise.
While some dogs panic with only one type of sound there are those that are phobic and manic with a multitude of noises. One has to be realistic: thunder and lightning can never be avoided particularly in the highveld region so the only really sensible way of preventing a sound sensitive dog is choose an individual and breed where the symptoms are least likely to occur, then socialize and train the puppies from weaning to develop sound coping skills.
It can be an embarrassment if one has named the Staffy “Flash” or “Storm” and the German Shepherd “Thor” and you find them both hiding under the kitchen sink during a thunderstorm.