A Dog That Is Afraid of Loud Noises Is Afraid of Everything

New data suggests that investigators may have uncovered 'Spooky Dog Syndrome.'

Posted Jan 12, 2017

Source: Gopal Aggarwal photo — Creative Commons License

A few years ago I was chatting with an Army veteran who had served as a dog trainer at The Department of Defense Military Working Dogs Training School at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio. This facility has trained military working dogs since 1958. At any given time, more than 1,000 dogs are being trained by a staff of 125 handlers from all branches of the military.

Over a cup of coffee the veteran told me:

   "The biggest reason why dogs are dropped from military service work is fearfulness. There are a lot of scientific tests you can give to a dog that claim they can figure out which dogs are too fearful to make it through the program. However, the head trainer in our unit had his own method. This involved just a room, which had nothing of importance in it except a metal folding chair. He always carried a metal clipboard with him. The test started when the dog was comfortably sitting beside its handler. Without any warning, he would hit the metal folding chair with his clipboard three times. Whack! Whack! Whack! It made an ungodly loud sound.

   "Of course the dog was startled (and so was the handler, if this was his first time encountering this situation). The point was to monitor how the dog reacted. Did he jump to his feet and bark, or did he try to run and hide? Or maybe he cringed and submissively urinated and so forth. Once the dog had settled down a bit, our trainer would approach (with his clipboard still in his hand) to see if the dog had calmed or was still reacting fearfully toward him.

   "He used to say that he was testing for what he called the 'Spooky Dog Syndrome.' He told us that a dog that was rattled by those loud sounds and didn't calm down when it was clear that nothing bad was going to happen was going to be afraid of everything. He would tell us, 'That kind of dog will be afraid of thunder, fireworks, gunshots, artillery sounds, close flying planes, you name it. In addition, that kind of dog will be afraid of strangers and strange situations. That is the kind of dog who's going to whimper and whine when you step away from it, leave it in a kennel, or leave it alone in a room. And if his fearfulness is bad enough, the dog could bite one of your comrades or even you. A dog that is afraid of loud sounds is just plain spooky and unreliable.'

   "He never offered us any scientific support for his notion, but it did seem to be the case that more of the dogs who failed his loud sound test were problematic and many did not make it through the training course."

I recalled this conversation when I ran across a study by a research team in Finland. It was led by Katriina Tiira of the Department of Veterinary Biosciences and Research Programs at the University of Helsinki and published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. This was a very large questionnaire-based study, partly done through the internet and partly through various breed clubs in Finland. In total, the data gathered concerned 3,284 dogs of 192 breeds.

The questionnaire was monstrously long (18 pages) and covered the dog's typical reactions to a variety of loud sounds, including fireworks, thunder, gunshots, leaf blowers, sirens, vacuum cleaners, and so forth. The dog's owners also reported whether the dog had shown fearful behavior in a variety of situations, if the dog had ever been aggressive in a variety of circumstances, or had shown separation anxiety.

The researchers used complex statistical analyses to figure out what was going on—and the main conclusion that one might reach from this data is that "Spooky Dog Syndrome" actually exists.

Because it is such a complex data set, I'll stick to the highlights: The investigators divided the dogs into two groups. Dogs who were reported as showing fear toward strangers, in new situations or unfamiliar places, or when confronted by unfamiliar dogs 40 percent of the time or more, were classified as being "fearful." Dogs who showed fear responses less frequently than that formed a "not fearful" group.

Was the Lackland trainer correct in his presumption that noise sensitivity is related to many varieties of fearful behaviors? The data seems to confirm the idea. When we look at the dogs who were classified as being fearful, it turns out that they are approximately twice as likely also to show high noise sensitivity and fear reactions to loud sounds. Further, if the dog was afraid of thunder, then it was also likely that the dog would be afraid of fireworks, gunshots, and—to a lesser degree—other loud noises such as sirens and vacuum cleaners.

The dogs with high noise sensitivity were also twice as likely to show fear reactions toward strangers and new situations (in 40-100 percent of the occasions). Further, roughly a third of these fearful, noise-sensitive dogs showed separation anxiety.

There is a particularly troubling aspect of the behavior of these fearful dogs—their tendency toward aggressive behavior. The noise-sensitive dogs were significantly more aggressive toward unfamiliar people and other dogs, although not toward their owners. The owners observed that their dogs showed aggression by barking, growling, and approaching a stranger in a manner that suggested that their aggressive behavior was defensive in nature. The investigators concluded that the dogs' overall fearfulness triggered their aggression.

Javier Brosch/Shutterstock
Source: Javier Brosch/Shutterstock

So is there something that we can define as a Spooky Dog Syndrome? It certainly appears that when a dog is afraid of one stimulus, such as a loud sound, it's a good predictor that the dog will be afraid of lots of different sounds, as well as unfamiliar places, people, and animals. These dogs will also suffer from separation anxiety and have a higher likelihood of becoming fear biters.

I don't recommend that people go around banging metal clipboards against metal folding chairs to test the fear responses in their dogs, but if you see a dog acting frightened in a situation in which loud noises are present, it is likely that the dog will act fearfully many other situations which do not involve noise at all.

Stanley Coren is the author of books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; 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.

References

Katriina Tiira, Sini Sulkama & Hannes Lohi (2016). Prevalence, comorbidity, and behavioral variation in canine anxiety. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 16, 36-44.

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