I was invited to do a short article for ‘The Conversation’ about my recent research on risk factors for aggression in dogs. The article highlights the relatively small amount that breed contributes to aggression risk, and the implications for breed specific legislation. It’s available here:
Fear responses to loud noises are common in the owned dog population, and a considerable welfare problem. Our research at the University of Bristol suggests that almost half of owners report some behavioural signs of fear in their dog in response to loud noises, although the owners interviewed didn’t always realize that these signs are indicative of a negative emotional state1,2
The behaviours shown are variable, ranging from trembling and shaking, barking and seeking comfort from owners1,3. In some cases, these signs can be extreme and impact on owners lives – in which case they may seek help from their veterinary surgeon or behaviour specialist. In many other cases, the behaviours are more subtle and less obvious to owners – but these dogs may be just as stressed3.
The focus for ‘behaviour problems’ has traditionally been on those behaviours which cause a problem for people, rather than those situations which cause a problem for animals4. Literature addressing dogs’ responses to loud noises tends to focus on those cases in which dogs show the most obvious, active or extreme responses – and this is probably why the phrase ‘noise phobia’ e.g.5 is used to describe them. But is that really the best term to describe dogs’ fear responses to loud noises?
Why not ‘noise phobia’?
1. Firstly, phobias in human literature are defined as ‘irrational fears’.6 Fireworks are very loud, bright and startling things. They are also unpredictable –occurring suddenly and for no good doggy reason at all. So showing a fear response is pretty adaptive and ‘rational’. They are also largely uncontrollable: although many of the behavioural signs that dogs show in response to loud noises are attempts to control their exposure3, they are mostly ineffective in escaping the noises and achieving relief. These characteristics –salience, unpredictability and uncontrollability – are important factors influencing the likelihood of an increased response (sensitisation) rather than adaptation (habituation) to a stimulus. Is it therefore irrational for dogs to react to fireworks? Absolutely not, any more than fears after traumatic events are not ‘irrational’ in humans7 – and it shouldn’t be surprising that so many dogs react as they do.
2. The term ‘phobia’ suggests an extreme or long-lasting response. But not all animals that are fearful of noises show an obvious response – some may react with more subtle signs. Dogs’ responses to loud noises are variable in the same way that separation responses vary between individuals8. Just because a dog isn’t leaping about or tunnelling into cupboards doesn’t mean that he or she isn’t scared of loud noises, and it is important that terms describing these behaviours include the full range of signs.
3. ‘Phobia’ also suggests a response to a lower level of noise than would normally be adaptive. Dogs’ response to noises will vary with their individual characteristics, but also importantly with learning experiences. With repeated exposure, sensitisation leads to an animal responding to noises at a progressively lower threshold. Although a dog may start by reacting to a loud firework going off next door, this can develop over time into a response to a barely audible noise in the distance. Hence, cases which appear to be more serious (or ‘irrational’) and occur at low levels of noise have often just been developing for longer.
Does it matter what we call it?
I’m sure that my students would agree that I’m a bit of a pedant when it comes to terminology in behavioural medicine – but how we describe things impacts on perceived meaning. This is particularly important where terms have potential welfare implications (as with ‘dominance’), so care should be taken with descriptors and definitions.
Many owners don’t understand that an initial startle response to a firework going off next door can develop into an extreme ‘phobic’ response to a car door being slammed down the street, through the normal processes of learning. By using the term ‘phobia’, the focus is on the extreme, low threshold and apparently ‘irrational’ responses. However, the key message is to encourage owners to recognize the early signs of anxiety or fear in their dogs – and to seek help for these before the problem develops further. Owners need to understand that by recognizing and acting on subtle signs of anxiety in their dogs, treatment of noise fears is likely to be easier and more successful. And maybe it would help to do this if our terminology didn’t imply that only the most obvious presentations are a problem?
- Blackwell, E.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S. and Casey, R.A. (2013). Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004
- Fear responses to noises (noise phobias) in dogs: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/noise-fears-in-dogs.html
- Signs and development of noise fears in dogs: http://vetbehaviour.info/dogs/20-noise-fears-in-dogs/17-signs-and-development-of-noise-fears-in-dogs.html
- Behaviour problems in dogs and cats: http://vetbehaviour.info/behaviour-problems.html
- Tuber, D.S., Hothersall, D. and Peters, M.F. (1982). Treatment of fears and phobias in dogs. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 12, 607-623.
- Seligman, M.E. (1971). Phobias and preparedness. Behaviour Therapy, 2, 307-320.
- Davey, G.C.L. (1995). Preparedness and phobias – specific evolved associations or a generalized expectancy bias. Behavioral and Brain Science, 18, 289-297, http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X00038498
- How puppies become anxious ‘home alone’ dogs: https://behaviourvet.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/how-puppies-become-anxious-home-alone-dogs/