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Even Mild Fear of Noise in Dogs Has Broad Effects

Linda Lombardi

Mild cases of noise reactivity in dogs are often not considered problematic enough to treat. However, in a recently published study, even mild noise sensitivity was associated with lower performance on a puzzle test. This suggests that these dogs have impaired functioning even when noise is not present and that more screening and treatment is called for.

Researchers analyzed three types of data collected as part of a larger study of pet dogs. Dogs were evaluated for noise sensitivity via a questionnaire and a score was calculated based on the number of categories of noise that caused a reaction, the behaviors indicative of fear and anxiety that were exhibited, and the intensity of the reaction. Dogs were also tested for noise sensitivity using a custom noise recording that was played starting at a low volume and gradually turned up.

Learning Affected

Dogs were then evaluated for their performance on a puzzle-box test. The clear plastic puzzle box had nine holes on top and one at the end. A tennis ball was rolled into the box and dogs were given five minutes to try to get it out. If they succeeded in under two minutes, they repeated the test, up to three times in total. While attempting the puzzle, the dogs were wearing a device that recorded their movements.

Comparing data from 17 noise-reactive dogs and 11 non-noise-reactive dogs, those who were sensitive to noise performed worse on the puzzle box. Movement recordings also showed a difference, says lead author Karen Overall. “The ones who did the best moved very efficiently and very quickly. Their movements counted. The dogs who reacted to noise and who did more poorly, or could not solve the test, had very jagged and inconsistent movements.”

These dogs did not seem to be able to move in a deliberate, coordinated manner in response to how the ball acted when they tried to manipulate it. “They have to correct their behavior according to the movement of the object that they see,” she says. “These dogs couldn’t do that.”

Some of the noise-reactive dogs did not perform well enough to repeat the test, but when they did, they also differed. “Unlike the dogs who didn’t react to noise, the dogs who did react to noise couldn’t learn from their previous tests and didn’t improve their scores,” she says.

Sound Effects

While it’s understood that being in a state of anxiety interferes with functioning, the results show that being noise-sensitive has more wide-reaching effects. Even in a relatively low-stress situation where noise was not an issue, these dogs showed impaired performance: “The room is quiet, they’re getting food treats, their people are there, but they still can’t learn.”

Overall says it’s important to understand that this was not a clinical population of noise-fearful dogs. “Largely they were fairly mild, and yet they still couldn’t do this,” she says.

They also were not generally fearful, which was screened for. “The dog who was the worst in the test, the only dog for whom we had to turn off the recording, she was the meet-and-greet queen of the universe,” she says. “She was charming and social and lovely until you played noise, and then she was broken.”

“Moderate to severe noise sensitivity in dogs is a well-known behavior problem. A connection between separation anxiety and noise sensitivity has also been recognized before. What has not been appreciated until Dr. Overall and her colleagues published this research is the impact that noise sensitivity has on the general anxiety levels and learning ability of affected dogs,” says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, DACVB, of Texas A&M University. “These changes exist even in mildly affected dogs, impacting their daily lives with ever-present stress.”

Screening and Treatment

Overall concludes that even mild fear of noises needs to be aggressively screened for and treated.

“I think we don’t realize how much these dogs are suffering,” she says. “This shows that you’ve got dogs who are afraid of noises and it’s impairing other parts of their life that people haven’t looked at. It’s impairing their ability to get information from the environment and their ability to problem solve.” This has a broad impact on their social functioning and their fundamental ability to enjoy life.

Overall now believes dogs should be screened for noise reactivity on every vet visit and that it’s particularly critical to screen young dogs. “I want vets to see dogs three or four times a year in the first two years of life, when their brains are developing, and subject them to standard screening tests,” she says.

This is important because early diagnosis and treatment can make a huge difference. “The rodent literature has shown that if you’re anxious and fearful and from a genetically fearful line, and they treat you as a baby, your brain develops normally,” she says. “And what wouldn’t we give for that? There’s too much suffering; I want these dogs to have joy.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Linda Lombardi writes about the animals that share our planet and our homes for magazines including The Bark, websites including National Geographic and Mongabay.com, and for the Associated Press. Her most recent book, co-authored with Deirdre Franklin, is The Pit Bull Life: A Dog Lover’s Companion.


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