The Nature and Consequences of Noise Sensitivity in Dogs

Noise sensitivity in dogs may predict fearfulness in other situations

Posted Sep 03, 2015

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

I was visiting the apartment of a friend who owns a handsome black Standard Poodle when suddenly there was a loud booming sound from the apartment above. It sounded much like someone had tipped over a file cabinet. The response of the dog was an immediate show of stress — running over to his mistress, and standing there trembling and panting. It is not unusual for loud noises to trigger fear and anxiety in dogs, and depending upon the nature of the specific sounds, the proportion of dogs affected can be quite large. Loud noises can provoke a variety of apprehensive and fearful behaviors in dogs, ranging from evidence of minor discomfort (restlessness, shaking, panting, drooling, freezing, yawning, and seeking comfort from its owner) to fairly marked behaviors (hiding, defecation, urination, self-mutilation, or vomiting). In some dogs the anxiety related effects can persist for hours and can be quite disruptive.

Why is it the case that some dogs react fearfully to loud sounds and others do not? A number of explanations for noise sensitivity have been suggested and these include: genetic factors, a traumatic experience associated with noise exposure, social transmission (learning from other fearful dogs), or a result of how the owner treats the dog (punishing the dog for its fear related behaviors, or reinforcing the dog's fear by being overly comforting). A study that was recently accepted for publication in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science* has taken a new look at noise sensitivity in dogs.

This new study was conducted by Linn Mari Storengen and Frode Lingaas from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Biosciences in the Norwegian University of Life Sciences at Oslo, Norway. It was a large study that looked at the behavior of 5,257 dogs. The participants in this research were dog owners who belonged to one of 17 different dog breed clubs in Norway. Each participant filled in a web-based survey to report the noise sensitivity of their pets in four different situations: fireworks, loud noises (banging sounds/gunshots), thunderstorms and heavy traffic. For each different type of noise the owners rated the severity of their dog's fearful responses on a five-point scale ranging from a low of "no signs" up to a high of "very strong signs" of anxiety.

Any dog that showed strong signs of anxiety on any of the four different types of noises was classified as a noise sensitive fearful dog. In this study 23% of the dogs were reported to be fearful of noises, which is a bit more than one out of every five.

If there is a genetic predisposition for particular dogs to be noise sensitive then it might show up as differences between various breeds of dogs. This study looked at 17 different breeds and it does confirm that certain breeds are significantly more fearful of loud sounds. For example if we consider the number of dogs in this investigation that are most fearful of fireworks we find the Norwegian Buhunds, Shiba Inus and Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers. In contrast the lowest frequency of fearful dogs are found among Pointers, Great Danes, Boxers and Chinese Cresteds.

The fact that there seems to be a physiological bias toward noise sensitivity is confirmed by several other findings in this study. For example, female dogs are found to be 30% more likely to be more fearful of noises then are male dogs. Obviously the difference between males and females is genetic, but it is also hormonal. The possibility that there might be a hormonal factor which helps to determine noise sensitivity was supported by the fact that neutering makes a difference in fearful responses to noises. In fact neutered dogs were found to be 72% more likely to be fearful of noises when compared to sexually intact dogs. Such data does not rule out the fact that the dog's personal history might influence his sensitivity to noise. For example, traumatic experiences occurring around loud noises, or bad management of noise related behavior by the dog's owners could still contribute to noise sensitivity. On the other hand it does seem to strongly suggest that certain physiological factors are playing a role in this behavior.

If we are looking at a general physiological predisposition toward fearfulness, then noise sensitivity should predict the anxiety related behavior of a dog in other situations as well. The results of this investigation seem to confirm that. A dog which is fearful to loud noises turns out to be three times more likely to show separation anxiety. When we compare dogs with noise sensitivity to those who are resistant to noise effects, we find that the sensitive dogs are 18 times more likely to show signs of being fearful in novel situations. These noise sensitive dogs are also four times more likely to take a longer time to calm down after stressful situations. All of this suggests that noise sensitivity might be an indicator of some underlying physiological mechanism which makes dogs more reactive to potentially stressful events in their environment.

If all of this is true, then we could actually use the noise sensitivity of dogs to measure the likelihood that they will have stressful responses in other circumstances. For example, recently researchers have found that older dogs are much more likely to react with stress in various situations than are younger dogs (click here for an example). If that is the case then this suggests that older dogs should also be more noise sensitive. It turns out that data from this new research bears this out. For each additional year of a dog's age there was a 3.4% increase in the likelihood that the dog would show strong or very strong signs of fear when exposed to loud noises.

So if your dog gets spooked and fearful by loud sounds this new research suggests that it is   more likely that much of his noise related anxious behavior may be the result of his heredity and physiology, rather than something that came about because of events that occurred during his life history.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Data from: Storengen, L.M., Lingaas, F., (2015). Noise sensitivity in 17 dog breeds: prevalence, breed risk and correlation with fear in other situations. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2015.08.020

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