Thunderstorms, skateboard wheels, car doors, musical instruments and fireworks are just a few of the sounds to which dogs can show sensitivity. In truth, a dog can develop a fear of just about any sound, no matter how loud or how soft. Dogs that experience sensitivity to certain sounds may pant, shiver, salivate or even attempt to escape. For severe fears (or sound phobias) this can lead a dog to injure itself. There are different reasons a dog can develop sound sensitivity fears.
According to a study by Louisiana State University (LSU), dogs can hear frequencies ranging from 67 to 45,000 hertz (as opposed to the 64-23,000 range of human hearing). Not only are sounds much louder to a dog’s ears, a dog can hear sounds that are much higher pitched than humans can. This means that what you hear may be drastically different than what your dog hears during a thunderstorm or fireworks display. Like humans, dogs’ hearing can vary from individual to individual, and dogs that have more sensitive hearing may be more likely to develop sound phobias.
Some dogs may have a genetic disposition for sound sensitivity and sound phobias. Certain dog breeds are known to be more likely to develop such sensitivity. It is especially prevalent in the herding breeds. Border collies, Australian cattle dogs, Australian shepherds, Shetland sheepdogs and German shepherds are more likely than other breeds to develop a fear of noises (though other breeds certainly aren’t immune). According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, it is uncertain whether genetics causes this tendency toward sound sensitivity, or if individual members of these breeds have more acute hearing than members of other breeds.
Though this is specific to thunderstorm sensitivity, it is possible that sound is not the only contributing factor to the fear. Dogs have more sensitive noses as well as ears, and smells in the atmosphere during storms may be just as unnerving to a dog as the thunder itself. Dogs can also be more sensitive to changes in barometric pressure and static electricity in the air. Anxiety overall of these changes can manifest as soon as the dog hears wind, rain or claps of thunder.
In some cases, a fear of noises may have developed after a dog had a negative experience that it associates with a specific noise. For example, a dog may get stuck outside in a thunderstorm with no shelter and develop a fear of thunder thereafter. A dog that has its tail caught in a car door may learn to fear the sound of car doors slamming shut. Humans can also help a dog learn to fear a sound by reinforcing that behavior. Coddling a dog or attempting it to comfort it with praise or treats when it gets nervous actually teaches it that its fears are legitimate. This type of reinforcement can cause a mild case of nerves to develop into a full-blown phobia.