People underestimate how much anxiety household sounds can produce for dogs

There are more sounds that can make your dog anxious in your home than you assumed, a new paper reports.

Image credits Susanne Pälmer.

Research at the University of California, Davis, has examined the potential of common household noises to make dogs anxious. Although it’s common knowledge that sudden, loud noises — fireworks or thunderstorms, for example — can easily trigger anxiety in man’s best friend, the results point to a much wider range of sounds our dogs might become frightened by.

But an arguably more important finding is that most owners can’t reliably pick up on the hallmark signs that their dog is anxious.

Misunderstandings

“We know that there are a lot of dogs that have noise sensitivities, but we underestimate their fearfulness to noise we consider normal because many dog owners can’t read body language,” said lead author Emma Grigg, a research associate and lecturer at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

According to the findings, even common noises such as a microwave, a vacuum cleaner during operation, or the battery warning of a smoke detector can trigger a dog’s anxiety. As a rule of thumb, high-frequency intermittent noises are more likely to make your dog anxious than continuous, low-frequency ones.

Some of the most common signs of a dog’s anxiety include cringing, trembling, or retreating. These are the ones most people can reliably pick up on, quite understandably so, as they mimic our own anxiety responses. But other behaviors can be more subtle and easily missed. These include panting, the turning of the head away, or a stiffening of the body. Other signs are a turning back of their ears or lowering of the head below their shoulders.

Gigg says it’s important for dog owners to learn about the anxiety-related behavior that dogs exhibit so that they can better understand and help their pets.

The data for this study was collected as part of a survey of 386 dog owners about their animals’ responses to a range of household sounds. The authors also examined the dogs’ behaviors and the reactions of their owners. This revealed that people both underestimate the anxiousness of their dogs, with a majority of those appearing in the videos actually responding with amusement to their displays of anxiety.

“There is a mismatch between owners’ perceptions of the fearfulness and the amount of fearful behavior actually present. Some react with amusement rather than concern,” Grigg said. “We hope this study gets people to think about the sources of sound that might be causing their dog stress, so they can take steps to minimize their dog’s exposure to it.”

Since dogs can perceive sounds from a broader spectrum than humans, it is possible that something which seems innocuous to us is quite painful to their ears — very loud or high-pitched sounds being some examples. Grigg says that any steps taken to prevent such noises, for example changing the batteries in your smoke detectors more often, can help improve your dog’s quality of life tremendously.

“Dogs use body language much more than vocalizing and we need to be aware of that,” said Grigg. “We feed them, house them, love them and we have a caretaker obligation to respond better to their anxiety.”

The paper “Stress-Related Behaviors in Companion Dogs Exposed to Common Household Noises, and Owners’ Interpretations of Their Dogs’ Behaviors” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

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