How to Help Dogs Scared of Sounds Outside the Home

By: David Codr

Published Date: December 21, 2023

help dogs scared of sounds

We go over how to help dogs scared of sounds with 6 year-old Norrbottenspets rescue dog Nala in this West LA dog training session.

Nala is a very fearful dog. She is so stressed at the sounds she hears outside that she only ventures to potty before rushingback inside away fromt he scary sounds. Since West LA is so busy, I invited her parents to bring her by my place the day before the session to meet in a quiet outdoor environment where she could take her time and do some sniffing. I was hoping that by meeting her outside in a quiet backyard we could make faster progress in the session.  It took some time and a lot of really high value treats, but eventually I was able to create a situation where she was comfortable enough to approach me and take treats from my hand. Small steps and successes are the name of the game when helping a fearful dog.

The next day, I waited outside of her apartment so her guardians could bring her out to meet me. I left a trail of treats and was sitting on the steps with my back to the doorway she came from. Sitting down, avoiding eye contact and positioning yourself so the dog approaches from slightly behind or your side are all tips that can help fearful dogs feel more comfortable.

Before we started working with Nala on her fear of noises outside the home, I spent a few minutes discussing the benefits of using medication. I would classify Nala’s fear as pretty high, borderline extreme. She showed classic indicators that she had cortisol, the stress hormone, in her blood.

When a dog has cortisol released into their blood, it can take up to three days of them being in a calm environment for the cortisol to dissipate. Since Nala no longer has a private backyard, she’s likely being retriggered multiple times every day – preventing her from returning to a complete state of relief. This is how may dogs develop PTSD.

I recommended that the guardian speak to the veterinarian about the possibility of introducing fluoxetine, known as doggy Prozac. Fluoxetine is an anti-anxiety medication that can help reduced a dog’s stress level. When modifying a dog behavior, it’s crucially important that the dog isnt too stressed and sometimes medication is a great way to help achieve that.

I made sure to go over the test that I like to use to confirm the medication is working. Fluoxetine takes 4 to 6 weeks to take affect and sometimes you need to adjust the dosage if it isnt working. But it can be hard for people to tell if it’s working, especially after 4-6 weeks of time. I always advise my clients to re-create a few situations that mildly upset the dog so that we can have a baseline for comparison. Ethically it’s important to find one of the most mild scenarios possible to do this as we obviously don’t want to intentionally trigger or stress out dogs.

I recommended that the guardian use someone knocking at the door for thier test.  I find it’s best to have a friend trigger the knock at the door so that we have more control of the timing.

The guardian should start a stopwatch as soon as the first knock or doorbell ring occurs. Then they should note how long it takes for Nala to stop barking on her own. How long it takes for her to sit down on her own and finally how long it takes before she lies down on her own.

I usually like to re-create the test scenario two or three different times at different times of the day to get an average number for each one of those categories. Then 4 to 6 weeks later, the guardians can re-create those scenarios and see if Nala is stopping her a barking or sitting or laying down faster. If that is the case, that is a good indication that the medication is working. If there is very little change, then that can be an indication that the medication needs to have its dosage changed so they can contact thier vet.

After we wrapped up the discussion on medication, I ran through a number of dog behavior fundamentals with the guardians such as how to read cut off signals and dog body language and the importance of celebrating desired behaviors to help the dog feel more confident. I also talked about some enrichment games and ways to exercise Nala inside the home.

How to Help Dogs Scared of Sounds Outside the Home

When a dog is fearful of sounds they hear we refer to this as the dog being sound sensitive. While some people find it amusing when dogs are fearful of sounds that we find benign, to the dog the fear and anxiety is very real and nothing to be laughed at.

As a Dog Behaviorist, I have found that one of the most effective ways to help dogs who are scared of sounds is a process called counter conditioning. Counter conditioning is a great way to help dogs stop fearing sounds outside of their home.

Since Nala was so fearful of having a stranger in her home she wasnt able to participate with me. That’s OK as counter conditioning doesnt require a ton of skill, just good tming and awareness of how the dog feels emotionally.

I handed my camera to her guardians and asked them to film me as I walked through an easy way to help a dog get over a fear of sounds they hear outside. If you have a dog scared of sounds outside your home, you should definitely check out the free positive dog training video below.

By re-creating the sound in a low level intensity that Nala is able to hear without reacting, then followed up by giving her a treat, we can start changing her perception of the sound from a negative to a positive. The treat needs to be delivered right after the sound occurs, no later than 2 seconds post sound.

The key is to go slowly. If the sound is too intense (loud) and the dog reacts (Barking, running away, etc), you’re creating a situation where the dog practices feeling stressed which is the exact opposite goal. Instead, you want to re-create the sound at a low enough level of intensity that the dog does not react, then mark and reward the dog for not reacting.

As you practice, you can gradually raise the level of intensity until you are eventually re-creating it in the same volume as it naturally occurs. If you do it right, the dog stops barking because they find that sound is now linked to a positive.

I recommended the guardians make a list of all of the sounds that Nala is fearful of and then work on them one at a time. Some of these sounds they can record audio of on their phone and then play them back in the home where Nala feels more comfortable.

This is a very effective way of helping a dog get over fears of sounds. I love helping dogs stop being afraid of sounds this way because I know that we are making a profound impact on their quality of life. As the guardians progress through their list, they will essentially be crossing off many of the things that stress Nala out. Each time they cross something out, they will have made a significant improvement in Nala’s quality of life. It will take time and some practice, but I have had an incredibly high success rate with this dog behavior modification exercise.

I asked the guardians to follow up with me over the next couple of days as they practice. It’s going to be really important for her guardians to follow up with me after the session as they practice. Its very common for unknown situations to pop up. I always like to be there to provide tips and suggestions to make sure the client is  doing everything right and making progress.

To help the guardians remember everything we discussed in this in-home West LA dog training session, I recorded a roadmap to success summary video that you can check out below.

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This post was written by: David Codr