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Russell Terrier hiding under the bed.
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Home sweet home may mean peace and quiet to you. But to your dog, the same home could sound like a marching band. Dogs hear many high-frequency noises that are undetectable to the human ear and may cause them to feel stressed. A study of 13,700 pet dogs showed that noise sensitivity was the most common trait to cause anxiety in dogs, showing up in almost one-third of the dogs.

What Is Noise Sensitivity?

“Noise sensitivity describes a dog who is fearful or startled by environmental noises,” explains Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, DACVB at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “To avoid confusion, it would be better described as fear of noise. When a dog is severely frightened and/or has a tough time recovering from exposure to noise, I would call it noise phobia.”

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Most adults hear sounds up to 20,000 Hertz (HZ). Dogs, however, hear sounds that reach frequencies as high as 47,000 to 65,000 HZ. We don’t know for sure why dogs and some other mammals are sensitive to high-pitched noises. It’s possible that their hearing evolved to strengthen their ability to locate where these sounds are coming from, which is especially important when hunting prey.

Causes of Noise Sensitivity

The U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine conducted research on the effect of noise sensitivity. They found that dogs were more likely to have a strong, anxious reaction to high-frequency, intermittent sounds, such as smoke detector warning beeps, than to low-frequency continuous sounds, such as microwave humming. Their research also showed that some owners underestimate noise fearfulness in their dogs.

Dr. Jill Goldman, a certified applied animal behaviorist, found that sound sensitivity varies for each dog. “Certain dogs of different ages or breeds may react to a variety of sounds. A dog’s health can affect his audible range and reaction to noise,” she says. “Prior experience and exposure also make a difference – when a young dog is exposed to a sound and the initial exposure isn’t traumatic, they can become habituated or desensitized.”

Most of us have high-frequency sounds in our homes, yards, and neighborhoods: electronic doorbells, smoke detectors, microwave ovens, vehicle backup alerts, carbon monoxide test beeps, Roombas, electric fences, insect zappers, ultrasonic rodent deterrents. “Many dogs don’t like the sound of vacuum cleaners, nail guns, electric drills, loud blenders, and high-efficiency washers that have a loud spin cycle,” says Dr. Borns-Weil.

Golden Retriever laying down next to a robot vacuum indoors.
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Signs Your Dog Is Anxious About a Noise

Understanding your dog’s changes in behavior and body language will help you recognize when your dog is having a difficult time with a particular noise in their environment.

“The intensity of the dog’s fear determines the response. If the fear is mild, the dog may seek out the owner or a safe space (like under the bed) and may show a low body posture with tail down or tucked and ears retracted or may engage in yawning or lip licking,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “A very fearful dog may tremble, cower, try to escape from the house, urinate or defecate, pace, pant, drool, and have a rapid heart rate.”

The AKC Canine Health Foundation warns that the more often a dog is exposed to frightening noise, the more intense their phobic response will be. Seeking shelter and trying to escape are common reactions.

Some Dogs React to Noise, Others Don’t

“All dogs are at risk of being startled by a loud and unexpected noise, like a fire alarm. Most dogs are resilient enough to recover from experience and do not generalize the fear to other sounds,” according to Dr. Borns-Weil.

“However, some dogs will generalize and associate one sound that frightens them with other sounds,” says Dr. Goldman. For example, for weeks after a lasagna overflowed in my oven, causing the kitchen smoke detector to beep, my dog asked to go outside each time she heard me turn on the oven.

Researchers have concluded there may be a genetic component to noise sensitivity, which often begins in very young dogs. Other studies report that dogs may react fearfully to noises they experience with trauma, noises they’ve seen other dogs react to fearfully, or sounds that generate a strong reaction from their owners. There also appears to be a correlation between a lack of socialization and noise sensitivity.

German Shorthaired Pointer puppy head portrait in profile outdoors.
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How to Help Your Noise-Sensitive Dog

When dogs react fearfully to household noises, their health, safety, and quality of life may be affected. “It’s important for caregivers to understand and be sensitive to why this dog has a problem – to consider where the dog has been,” Dr. Goldman advises. “Has it lived a very sheltered life and not been exposed to a variety of auditory experiences?”

Dr. Goldman recommends these steps to bring relief to a noise-sensitive dog:

  • Talk to a veterinarian: Visit your dog’s veterinarian first to rule out any underlying medical factors. When a dog is in pain, they may react fearfully to sounds that don’t typically cause anxiety.
  • Pay extra attention: If you observe a pattern of behavior, find out what’s happening at this location that might be causing it. It’s often easier to change your environment by removing the source of the noise, than to modify your dog’s fear-based behavior.
  • Start early: Puppies who hear gentle recordings of loud sounds and receive treats can learn to associate those noises with positive outcomes.
  • Provide the dog with a safe place to go: Whether it’s a crate, closet, or under the bed, make their go-to spot as insulated and welcoming as possible. Offer a calm space and train the dog to relax and go to their safe spot.
  • Give anti-anxiety medication: In severe cases when a sound can be isolated, medication prescribed by a veterinarian and used on a short-term basis may help when used in conjunction with behavior modification.
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