Loud noises are startling to most of us, but we usually jump a little and then go about our business. Some dogs, however, develop a debilitating fear of thunder, fireworks, gunshots, and other loud noises. A noise-shyness in dogs is distressing because it often leads to destructive behavior or a dog that runs away and gets lost or hurt. You can, however, take steps to help your Lab overcome his fear of loud sounds.
Training classes won't magically solve all your Lab's behavior problems, but they can increase the bond between the two of you, as well as increase your dog's confidence, making him more willing to work with you and less likely to behave fearfully.
What to Do
First and most important, don't cuddle or talk soothingly to your Lab while he's displaying fearful behavior. By doing that, you reinforce the idea that there's something to be afraid of. Behave normally and ignore the dog's behavior. On the flip side, don't force your dog to be around the noise or punish him for behaving fearfully; both actions can make the problem worse.
Note whether your dog heads for a perceived safe place whenever loud noises occur. Determine what that place is and make sure he has easy access to it if a storm is brewing or dusk is falling on the Fourth of July. Don't lock him up in the safe place, whether it's a crate or a room. He should be free to leave it if he wants to.
Distraction is another technique that can work well. Try using it when there are signs of a thunderstorm, but your Lab hasn't yet started to display fearful behavior, such as hiding or whimpering. Play a game of tug or fetch — inside — or practice some obedience commands. Give lots of praise and rewards for participating in the play or training session. The activity may help delay the onset of fearful behavior. Stop the game or training if your Lab starts acting afraid, and let him go to his safe place if he chooses.
Counterconditioning and desensitization are behavior modification techniques that can help dogs overcome fears. They involve gradually accustoming the dog to the sounds (or other stimuli) that cause fear and replacing the fearful response with one that's more acceptable. Like most behavior modification, these techniques require time and patience.
Get a recording of thunderstorm noises or make a recording of firecracker sounds or whatever noise frightens your Lab. Play the recording at a very low volume, so that it's almost inaudible. While the recording is playing, do something your Lab enjoys. Play fetch, give treats, or feed a meal.
Do the same thing each time you play the recording. Over a period of days, weeks, or months, very gradually increase the volume. If you notice your Lab starting to display fearful behavior, stop the recording. Try again later with it set at a lower level. Eventually, your Lab should start to associate the frightening sound with good times.
Talk to your veterinarian about getting a short-term prescription of an anti-anxiety drug for your dog. Medication alone won't solve the problem, but it can help the behavior modification process. It can also be a good idea to get the help of a behaviorist if your Lab's noise phobia is severe.
Never give your Lab a dose of your own Paxil, Valium, or other drug. Just because a certain medication helps you doesn't mean your dog will respond to it in the same way. And an amount that's safe for you could be fatal to your Lab.