Can dogs have very sensitive hearing? Expert Advice

Fear responses to sound

Sound sensitivity, though more common in herding breeds such as German shepherds, border collies and Labradors, can affect any dog at any age. Think of the terrier mix who hides cowering under the coffee table during a thunderstorm, or the poodle who gets the jitters every time a transport truck rumbles by.

A new study has gained insight into how domestic dogs react to noises. “Our results suggest that the characteristics of dogs, their early environment, and exposure to specific noises are involved in the development of fear responses to noises,” says Dr. Rachel Casey, who led the study at the School of Veterinary Sciences, University of Bristol.

Dr. Casey says that almost half the people interviewed reported their dogs showed at least one behavioral sign of typical fear when exposed to noises such as fireworks, thunder and gunshots, even though only a quarter reported their dogs were fearful of noises. The most commonly reported behavioral responses included vocalizing, trembling, shaking, hiding and seeking people. Fear responses to loud noises from fireworks, gunshots and thunder appear to commonly co-occur, suggesting generalization between these stimuli. Interestingly, many responses to less salient sounds, such as traffic and TV noises, apparently co-occurred with other signs of fear or anxiety; but responses to fireworks, gunshots and thunder did not commonly co-occur with separation-related behavior or behaviors linked to fear or anxiety.

The study concluded that fear responses to less important noises (TV, traffic) probably reflect fearful personality characteristics (as with Penny and the truck-hating poodle), while those to very significant noises (gunshots, thunder, fireworks), may reflect specific exposures and experiences.

You know dogs have a keener sense of hearing than we do. What you may not know is that some are extra sensitive to sound, and can develop fearful behavior because of it.

Karen adopted Penny from her local shelter. Sensitive to every sound, the shepherd mix was almost too fearful to go for walks. Determined to find a way to help Penny overcome her sound phobia, Karen first consulted her veterinarian to check for any medical issues. The next stop was a veterinary behaviorist, who used desensitization and behavior modification to help Penny regain confidence and generally overcome her fear of noises.

Signs that a dog is noise-phobic

A dog with a noise phobia can become very distressed and may salivate, pant, start pacing, scrabble at their owner, tremble or try to hide when exposed to loud noises.

I’ve had a few cases where owners have come home to find their sofa has been destroyed because their dog tried digging down into it to hide from a noise it was frightened of.

Dog’s Senses – How Far They Work?

For an introduction to this topic please see our handout on “Fears, Phobias, and Anxiety in Cats and Dogs”.