Household Sounds May Be Stressing Your Dog

Many owners misread their dog's signs of anxiety.

terrier dog hiding under a bed.
Vanessa Van Ryzin, Mindful Motion Photography / Getty Images

Your dog may get nervous during thunderstorms or fireworks, but more common household noises may be stressing your pet and you might not know it.

A new study from researchers at the University of California, Davis, finds that many owners don’t recognize that their dog is anxious when exposed to common home noises like a microwave or a vacuum. Or they underestimate the amount of stress their pet feels.

The study was inspired by the dog of one of the authors.

“Ginny was a very sweet, gentle Australian shepherd who one day began to act very strangely: very stressed, even stopped eating, for a few days,” lead author Emma Grigg, a research associate and lecturer at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, tells Treehugger. “Eventually, the source of Ginny's distress was found to be the low-battery chirps of a smoke detector located in another part of the house.”

The noise wasn’t initially noticed by her owner, but once the sound stopped, Ginny returned to normal. Interest was piqued and Professor Lynette Hart and her students wanted to see if they could document the response more broadly.

“I was asked to join the study after the initial survey was run, but immediately recognized the behavior as one of my own dogs does exactly the same thing,” Grigg says. “She literally trembles whenever she even thinks the smoke alarm will go off (for example, when I put the stovetop fan on to clear smoke from an inadvertently charred pan or burnt toast).”

Different Noises and Your Dog

For the study, researchers surveyed 368 dog owners about their pets’ responses to daily and irregular but “normal” household sounds and observed dozens of videos online featuring dogs reacting to common household noises.

They found that high-frequency, intermittent noises like the low-battery alert warning from a smoke detector or carbon monoxide detector are more likely to trigger anxiety in a dog than low-frequency, continuous noise like the sound of a vacuum cleaner. With these lower-frequency, continuous noises, reactions often looked more like arousal or excitement instead of fear.

The results were published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

“Based on our results, it seems that when owners consider the sound to be a 'normal' part of household life, they tend to consider a fearful reaction from their dogs to be unusual, perhaps even unjustified or "crazy" (based on the titles of some of the videos),” Grigg says. “Dogs are individuals and will vary in their sensitivity to noise; you can have multiple dogs in a household and only one may show this intense reaction to these sounds.”

Grigg points out that estimates of noise phobias in dogs vary, but as many as half of dogs may suffer from some form of noise sensitivity.

“Incidentally, we suspect (based on experience and anecdotal evidence) that many cats may also be fearful of some household noises,” she says. “That's another future study.”

Underestimating Stress

Owners often think they know what their pets are feeling, but that isn’t always the case. They often miss or misinterpret some feelings of anxiety, researchers say.

“We as humans are pretty good at interpreting the really overt signs of stress in dogs—cringing, tail tucked, running away—but without some form of education in canine behavior, we are not nearly as good at detecting the subtle signs of stress in our dogs,” Griff says. 

“Behaviors like lip licking, body tensing, firmly closed mouth, looking or leaning away from the source of stress, lowered body posture are all important signs that a dog is uncomfortable, and if we ignore these signs in some contexts, some dogs may escalate to defensive aggression.”

Ideally, owners would be able to realize when their dog is stressed or uncomfortable and either change what’s happening or remove their pet from the stressful situation, Grigg says. For example, change the batteries regularly on smoke detectors so warning alarms don’t go off or put your pet in the backyard with a stuffed Kong toy while you vacuum.

“Studies repeatedly show that the general public (vs. dog behaviorists, researchers, etc.) tends to underestimate fear and anxiety in dogs—likely because they miss these more subtle signs,” she says.

Researchers hope that the study results will make owners more aware of how household sounds can be stressing out their pets and take steps to minimize that anxiety.

“Dogs experience many of the same emotions that we humans do, and when they display these signs of fear and anxiety they are suffering; if we can alleviate this suffering, I think we owe it to them to do so,” Grigg says.

“Our dogs rely on us for everything, really, and provide us so much companionship and happiness. I suspect that most if not all the owners who responded to the survey or were seen in the videos truly loved their dogs; they just didn't really understand what they were seeing in their dog's behavior, or maybe didn't consider the situation from their dog's perspective.”

View Article Sources
  1. Grigg, Emma K., et al. "Stress-Related Behaviors in Companion Dogs Exposed to Common Household Noises, and Owners' Interpretations of Their Dogs' Behaviors." Frontiers in Veterinary Science, vol. 8, 2021, doi:10.3389/fvets.2021.760845

  2. lead author Emma Grigg, a research associate and lecturer at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine