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.

Useful links:
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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  1. My 5 year old blue GSD bitch has a fear of noises in open spaces example: gunshot sounds from as afar as 6 miles away, car back firing , builders banging , chopping of wood , even traffic noise but not if being walked on the pavement. She has had a couple of scares like rockets going off from the local lifeboat station, another time was very close to a shotgun which i feel she has never recovered. I am left with a dog who i find it difficult to walk with any pleasure and it seems to be getting worse every day she is far to young to be a house dog aghhhh

  2. My 6 yr old female Aussie is terrified of thunder, gunshots, and fireworks. She has been her whole life. I always attributed it to her breed, and the fact that when she was a pup she was left unattended to by herself in Utah in the month of July where fireworks went off all month long, far into the night. Then she would be sprayed by the sprinklers. It was a sad situation.

  3. My 5 yr. old male Boxer BOLTED on July 4, this year. Fortunately he was attached to me on a bungee leash. The sound shocked all of us. A nearby neighbor was setting the fireworks. We made it to the garage into the car, and unfortunately toward home, which is just blocks from the St. Paul Saint's Ball Field which was the location of 2017 fireworks celebration.He has spent his entire life on the busy streets of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. His a.m. and p.m. walks are spent passing through large crowds at crosswalks, alongside buses and semi-trucks, construction sites, riding in elevators with strangers,seemingly constant fire trucks and sirens, etc. He pees, heels, sits as if nothing else exists, totally loose body. I've never had so many compliments on a dog. Mid-day we hike the woods or go to off-leash parks where he will respectfully approach strangers and lean in if they give him a butt scratch. I acquired him at age 3-1/2, which was when he began to startle and dodge away from the buses and trucks. I thought I was doing something wrong but he was my daughter's dog and we'd been walking together daily for months. I was very successful in desensitizing to those sounds.We attended 5 individual classes and graduated from the training school! That's how special he is. We recently went camping high in the Colorado mountains. It was so wonderful to hear quiet...for me. Only one other family at our location, completely out of sight, but when that outhouse door slammed, he barked and lunged like I have never seen. To be fair, he has never been tethered before, but park rules and bear and moose required it. A truck passed by on a fairly distant road and he took off so hard and fast after it that his leather lead snapped. His neck did not jerk. He ran quite a distance but returned to our calls, puffing like a bull.The change in him related to sudden loud sounds since the Fourth is astounding.I sleep through thunderstorms but now find him under the bed.This guy is typically so mellow, social, and friendly that the director of the local humane society where he attends daycare asked where I got him. She wanted to send friends to get their new dog from same breeder. I have formal training in reading canine body language and b-mod and pay very close attention to his emotional state. I can vacuum inches from his stretched-out body. I T-touch massage him 3x day and in new situations.I rarely allow strangers to greet him on leash. I watch what he is showing me he is comfortable with. We are still visiting in CO.,and since returning from camping, I had to work with him to go out to potty, then to leave the doorway, am trying to get around the block! Yesterday I purchased a Thundershirt. Fingers crossed as we drive back to the cities tomorrow which means a night in a strange hotel and a return to city noise. He is so exhausted. I am anticipating a regression in training upon returning home. Then again, all of that familiar constant noise may be just what he needs.


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