Fear of Loud Noises: A Common Problem in Domestic Dogs?

Fear of loud noises is common in pet dogs, but many owners miss the signs, study shows.

By Zazie Todd, PhD



A chihuahua looking frightened with its paw lifted
Photo: Eric Isselee/Shutterstock

Do you have a dog that cowers at the sound of thunder, or comes running to you for comfort when the neighbours set off fireworks? A new study by Emily-Jayne Blackwell, John Bradshaw and Rachel Casey (University of Bristol) investigates how common this problem is.

The study involved a questionnaire completed by 3,897 dog owners, and a structured interview with a smaller set of 383 dog owners. Dog owners were recruited in a variety of ways, including at dog shows, veterinary clinics, and whilst out walking their dogs. A wide variety of breeds took part, including 16% cross-breeds.

The questionnaire asked for demographic information about the dogs and their owners, and then asked the question ‘Does your dog show a fearful response to noises?’ Questions were also asked about other behavioural problems the dog might have, such as soiling in the house, chewing, and hiding from unfamiliar people.

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The structured interview with a smaller sample of owners asked more detailed questions about their dog’s response to noise, including asking specifically about thunder, fireworks and gunshots, and sensitivity to other noises such as the vacuum cleaner.

In the total sample, 25% of owners reported that their dog showed fear of noises. However, in the structured interview sample, half of owners (49%) reported a fearful response. The most common responses to noises were trembling/shaking (43%), barking (38%) and seeking out people (35%). 

The difference between the two samples is surprising, and shows that the wording of the question is important. All participants were asked if their dog was fearful of noises, but in the structured interview, participants were also asked about specific behaviours that are signs of fear. Interestingly, some participants who said their dogs were not fearful still reported that their dogs did things like trembling/shaking, hiding or seeking out people in response to loud noises. 

This ties in to a recent study by Michele Wan that found that ordinary dog owners are not very good at recognizing fear in dogs. It will be important for future questionnaire studies to include specific identifiable behaviours instead of just relying on owner reports of fear.

Dogs that responded badly to fireworks tended to also react to thunder and gunshots. They were also more likely to be older. Dogs that responded to thunder were more likely to be owned by males (although this may be a response bias), would also react to fireworks, gunshots and loud noises on TV, and tended to be afraid of traffic. Dogs that were afraid of gunshots tended to also react to fireworks and cars back-firing, and were more likely to be male and older.

This suggests that a fearful response to loud noises might link to other loud noises, but is not a sign of a generally fearful dog. 

There were conflicting results about exposure during the first four months. This is an important socialization window, as puppies that are exposed to things during the first four months are usually calm around them later in life. This is why dog trainers tell new puppy owners to socialize the pup to lots of different people, wheelchairs, people with canes/sunglasses/hats etc. during this time. In this study, exposure to thunder during the first four months was associated with a later fear of thunder and gunshots, but had a protective effect for fireworks. This is surprising, but since it relied on memories long after the fact, it may not be an accurate picture.

Less than a third of owners had sought advice about their dog’s fear. Of those that did, the most common was to ask the vet, showing that veterinary practices are important in referrals for behavioural advice. It is surprising that so few owners sought help, especially given that dogs can be desensitized to loud noises. Perhaps the frequency of fireworks, thunder and gunshots was low enough that owners did not feel concerned. However, the study took place in the UK where fireworks are common on Bonfire Night (5th November) and surrounding nights. 

I think for dog owners there are two lessons to take from this study. One is that trembling, shaking, hiding, seeking people and barking can all be signs of a fear response to a loud noise. The other is that help is available and a dog does not have to suffer. If your dog cowers in response to fireworks, perhaps now is the time to do something about it, as there is plenty of time to fix it before next Halloween/Bonfire Night. The ASPCA has a useful factsheet about fear of noises.

And you might also like my posts, eight tips to help fearful dogs and what is desensitization and counter-conditioning in dog training.

How does your dog react to loud noises such as thunder or fireworks?


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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Reference
Blackwell, E.J.,, Bradshaw, J.W.S.,, & Casey, R.A. (2013). Fear responses to noise in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear-related behaviour Applied Animal Behaviour Science : 10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004

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