How to desensitise a dog to loud noises (training tips)

9 April 2024 - 6 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
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Just like people, dogs can get anxious from time to time, and loud noises are one of their most reliable triggers. Whether it's fireworks, thunderstorms, or just the hustle and bustle of daily life, these sounds can cause cautious canines to crawl out of their fur with stress. In fact, it’s not unheard of for dogs to run away at the sound of loud noises.

Fortunately, there are some very effective ways to address your dog’s noise sensitivity. Let’s dive in. 

Why is my dog sensitive to noise?

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It’s common for dogs to have some reaction to loud or unexpected noises like thunder or fireworks. But when a dog regularly responds to loud noises with extreme stress—exhibiting behaviours like cowering, barking, trembling, trying to escape, or excessive panting—they may be suffering from a more serious level of noise sensitivity. It’s even reasonable to call this a phobia.

Noise phobias can profoundly impact a dog's well-being, manifesting as anxiety and behavioural changes. To assess whether your pup’s reaction is typical or points to major noise sensitivity, think about how well your dog is recovering once the noise stops. A dog with normal sensitivity might be alert or mildly anxious during the noise, but they’ll settle down quickly afterwards. 

To assess whether your pup’s reaction is typical or indicates noise sensitivity, think about how well your dog is recovering once the noise stops.

Meanwhile, a dog with noise phobia might exhibit prolonged stress signs or display continued behavioural changes long after the noise has stopped. Such dogs might try to hide, refuse to eat, or become destructive in their panic. They could even try to run away.

Observing your dog over multiple occurrences can help you understand whether their reactions are consistent and severe enough to warrant some kind of intervention.

What is dog desensitisation training?

Desensitisation training is a gradual process that can help dogs become more comfortable with sounds that previously alarmed them. The core idea is to expose your dog to the noise that bothers them, but at a level that’s low enough not to trigger a full-blown fearful reaction. Over time, these controlled exposures can help reduce your dog's sensitivity to the noise, making it more manageable for them.

Desensitisation training is a gradual process that can help dogs become more comfortable with sounds that previously alarmed them.

Noise desensitisation training isn’t always for the faint of heart. Remember, it only works if you take a slow and steady approach. Rushing it can do more harm than good, reinforcing your dog's fear instead of alleviating it. 

The process that’s widely recommended by behavioural experts involves playing recordings of the triggering noise or noises at a low volume. Make sure these noises are audible enough for your dog to notice but not loud enough to cause distress. It might take a moment to find the sweet spot. 

As you progress, embrace the principle of 'little and often.’ In other words, regular, short sessions are typically more effective than less frequent, longer ones. The goal is to make each noise exposure a non-event for your dog so that it blends into the background of their daily lives. With time and consistency, these sounds can become part of the norm, reducing the likelihood of a fearful response.

And it’s vital to pair the noise exposure with positive experiences. Treats, playtime, or cuddles can help create a positive association with the sounds, aiding in the overall desensitisation process. Remember, each dog is an individual, and what works for one may not work for another. Always remain attentive to their responses and stay flexible. 

Preparing for desensitisation dog training

Before you start the desensitisation process, you need to set the stage for success. Create a comfortable and controlled environment where your dog can feel safe and relaxed. Choose a quiet space in your home where your dog can feel secure throughout the sessions.

Before you start the desensitisation process, you need to set the stage for success.

Next, gather the necessary tools for desensitisation. This typically includes a source of the noise you're aiming to desensitise your dog to, like a recording of thunderstorms or fireworks. It's also helpful to have a way to adjust the volume and, ideally, the frequency of the sounds. And make sure plenty of your dog's favourite treats and toys are on hand to create positive associations with the noise.

It's equally important to identify your dog's threshold level—the point at which the noise begins to cause anxiety. Start by playing the sound at a very low volume and observing your dog's behaviour closely. Look for subtle signs of discomfort or anxiety, as these will indicate when the sound is too loud or too close to their threshold.

Once you've established a starting point, you can begin the actual desensitisation process. Always be ready to adjust based on your dog's reactions. Remember, the aim is to expose your dog to the noise without causing fear, so patience and careful observation are mandatory. 

Desensitisation training for dogs (step-by-step)

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The desensitisation process is methodical and requires consistency and patience. Here's how to approach it step by step:

  1. Start small: Begin with the noise at a volume low enough that your dog notices it but doesn't show signs of anxiety. This might be very quiet initially, depending on your dog's sensitivity.

  2. Incrementally increase volume: If your dog remains calm at the initial volume, gradually increase it over successive sessions. The key is to make these increases so small that your dog hardly notices the change.

  3. Have consistent sessions: Conduct short desensitisation sessions regularly, rather than long sessions sporadically. This helps your dog acclimate to the noise without becoming overwhelmed.

  4. Offer positive reinforcement: Throughout the process, pair the noise exposure with something your dog loves, like treats or play. This positive association can help reduce the negative response to the noise.

  5. Monitor and adjust: Watch your dog's reactions closely. If they show signs of anxiety, reduce the volume and build up more slowly. The process should be dictated by your dog's comfort level, not a predetermined timeline.

By following these steps, you're helping your dog learn that the noise they once feared is just a normal part of their environment. It's a gradual process, but with time and patience, many dogs can learn to tolerate or even ignore noises that once caused them distress.

Monitoring progress and adjusting the plan

If you diligently monitor your dog's behaviour and reactions during these sessions, you’ll gain invaluable insights into their changing anxiety level. Maintaining a log of their responses can be extremely helpful, allowing you to notice any subtle changes or improvements over time.

Be sure to adjust the volume based on your dog's reactions. If they exhibit any signs of distress, it's a clear indicator that you need to decrease the intensity and proceed more gradually. 

Be sure to adjust the volume based on your dog's reactions. If they exhibit any signs of distress, it's a clear indicator that you need to decrease the intensity and proceed more gradually. 

The frequency of the desensitisation sessions also plays a significant role in your dog's progress. Find the right balance. Too infrequent, and your dog may not habituate to the noise. Too frequent, and they might feel triggered or overwhelmed. Tailor the schedule to suit your dog's individual needs, increasing or decreasing the number of sessions based on their reactions.

If at any point you feel uncertain about your dog's progress or how to best proceed, consulting with a veterinarian or behavioural expert (or both) can provide much-needed guidance. In fact, it might be wise to have these conversations in any event. Vets and behaviourists can offer perspective, suggest modifications, and help assess whether the desensitisation is working effectively.

Lastly, you should always acknowledge and celebrate your dog's progress, no matter how incremental. Positive reinforcement enhances their confidence and reinforces the learning process, helping your dog associate the noise with favourable outcomes rather than fear.

When to seek professional help for your dog's noise sensitivity

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Even with diligent effort and a well-structured plan, there might be instances where you hit a roadblock in your dog's desensitisation process. In some cases, professional assistance might be indispensable.

In truth, there’s never a bad time to consult a vet or a behaviourist, even if you think you’ve got the situation under control. But if your dog's reactions to noises seem to persist or intensify despite your efforts, then you’ll really know it’s time to seek help. 

Veterinarians and dog behaviourists can offer expert advice, identifying underlying issues that aren't immediately apparent to even the most observant dog owners. Your vet may even diagnose an unknown health condition that’s been contributing to your dog’s anxiety. 

Professionals can also provide more targeted desensitisation strategies and may recommend integrating additional treatments, such as medication or alternative therapies, to support your dog's progress. 

Moving forward with your dog's noise desensitisation

As you desensitise your dog to loud noises, patience and perseverance are the name of the game. Remember, progress varies with each dog, so be sure to celebrate every small victory and maintain a nurturing environment. Keep an eye on your dog's reactions to loud sounds while boosting their comfort and happiness at every step. 

And don’t give up.

For added peace of mind, consider purchasing dog insurance. While it's important to note that behavioural issues are not covered, ManyPets’ accident and illness plan provides financial support in unforeseen situations where accidents or illnesses are involved. At the end of the day, taking care of your dog’s physical health complements their behavioural health, and vice versa.

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David Teich
Lead Content Editor

David Teich is Lead Content Editor at ManyPets. He loves pets, Scrabble, Oxford commas, and typing loudly.