Another Look at a Fearful Dog

A small black and tan dog sits in a woman's lap. The dog's ears are back, her mouth is tight, her brow is very tight. She looks, and is, extremely afraid.
Zani is petrified

Little Zani is not sound sensitive in general. She thinks thunderstorms and fireworks are great, since they predict spray cheese at our house. Things like vacuums and generators she is good with. And she hears various beeps, dings, and various other sounds from my computer and phone all day without any apparent adverse response.

So why she is petrified of the quiet chirp of a low battery from the smoke alarm I do not know. I do know that when she does get scared of something, it can take her quite a while to bounce back, as I described and showed  in The Look of Fear.

I am finally learning to change all the smoke alarm batteries on a schedule (Summer doesn’t much like that noise either, but doesn’t get in quite such a panic), but every once in a while one goes low anyway. Since I rarely know which alarm it is, I remove all the alarms in that part of the house and get them outside quickly. I usually take them to my office on the next work day and test and replace the batteries well away from home.

The footage of the video was taken about 20 minutes after the little “chirp.” Zani was still in full panic. This is one of the few times she wants to be in my lap, and she is insistent about it. Of course that is fine with me. I had already been sitting in front of my computer, so I turned on the webcam to get a minute of footage. This didn’t make her situation more difficult for her in any way; we just continued to sit there.

A small black and tan dog sits in a woman's lap. The dog's ears are back, the corners of her mouth are pulled back, her brow is very tight, and her mouth is open and her tongue is hanging out a bit. She is extremely afraid, but since her mouth is open from panting, some people might think she is "smiling."
This is not a “smiling” dog


It is hard to see, but she was trembling violently. You can see the panting, which is purely from stress. It was not warm in the house, and she only pants in the hottest of weather, and then only briefly. She doesn’t particularly enjoy petting at the best of times, so I just let her sit in my lap and lean on me, and spoke to her now and then.

The most clear sign of stress for me is the extreme rictus of the corners of her mouth (commissures). Even though we tend to associate the open mouth of a panting dog with a “smile,” the stretched commissures (and ears pulled back) tell otherwise.

Link to video for email subscribers.

I labeled some of the basic signs of stress, but there are many others. What all do you see?

After about half an hour I decided to see if I could distract Zani. She went outside with the other dogs, but quickly wanted back in again. She was able to respond to a cue to get on her mat, and a few bites of one of her favorite foods (commercial turkey meatballs) brought her back to herself and ended the panting and trembling, although she still wanted in my lap. I let her sit with me some more, and you can see some of the fatigue leftover from the fear response.

A small black and tan dog is lying in a woman's lap, with her head hanging over the woman's arm. The dog's eyes are closed or she is gazing downward.  She is exhausted.
The aftermath: Zani worn out from stress

We had one more hurdle, and that was going to bed that evening, since she had been in the bedroom when she heard the smoke alarm. But she came in of her own accord, staying close to me, then planted herself on my lap in the bed. By morning she was acting normally.

I plan to perform desensitization and counter conditioning to help her over this fear, but it will be very tricky. Since that noise is quiet anyway, it will be a real challenge to find a way to start with it quiet and/or far away enough that it doesn’t trigger the fear. I may vary the pitch and start with a lower frequency beep that doesn’t fall into the “scary chirp” classification. I know I can’t completely prevent these chirps from happening, and sound sensitivity generally gets worse over time. So I am very motivated to help little Zani with this.

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

17 thoughts on “Another Look at a Fearful Dog

  1. I love reading your blog. Just found it recently. LIttle Zani is so cute. I do have a question. My dog, Murphy, a mini poodle who weights about 10 lbs. loves to lick the furniture. I use to think it was some food on the arms of the chair, but he will do it to your clothes, your pillow, your blankets. I keep wondering what this is about. He doesnt seem stressed at all. In fact, just the opposite, but I heard it was stress. Any ideas?

    1. I don’t know. I hope maybe another reader will know more. I had read something about it recently and I think it was that it was stress. I used to have a little rat terrier who licked his toys a LOT, then branched out to licking the floor. I won’t say compulsive, but he did spend a lot of time doing it. I didn’t identify it as stress at the time but it could have been. I just don’t know. Sorry! Hope someone else has some information.

  2. I think there are some batteries for smoke detectors that should last 10 years. Could that be something to consider perhaps?

  3. thank you for this post, eileen.
    i think the effects of exhaustion after the fact can be as stressful as the event itself.
    it’s important to give dogs plenty of downtime to recover after such days.
    i don’t think enough people are aware of the aftermath and the ongoing effects it has on a body/brain. so, thanks for mentioning it.

    1. Thanks, Diana. Now I feel like I should have mentioned it more! I actually had a bit of video of that part. I was going to put it in the movie but forgot. I’m glad for your comment.

  4. Poor Zani, I wonder if this might be a clue to her past. Has she ever heard a smoke alarm going off? If so has she reacted the same way? Did you not find her running scared? Could she have been in a fire in the past, or maybe a smoke alarm went off and scared her sily and she escaped. I know you said she was only reacting to the low battery chirps, but maybe they are similar enough to the regular alarm sound???

    1. I don’t know everything about her past but I do know some. She wasn’t traumatized when I found her–she was trotting down the street looking for people or dogs to visit with! She jumped happily into my car. She could have had something happen before, though. But I thinnnnk… that she didn’t use to be afraid at all of the chirps, but I’m not sure. I know she wasn’t this afraid. Whatever started it, it is getting worse, as I’ve heard sound sensitivity generally does. But I’m on it. I’ve gotten some software to start generating tones to desensitize her, starting with tones that are very different from what she is scared of, and working my way closer. And thanks to another commenter, I’m looking into to some new smoke alarms with long lasting batteries.

  5. I just came across this post. My dog is terrified of the smoke detector chirp! He has a dog flap so will go outside and try to get through the fence to get away. Or if he’s inside he will hide in the bathtub (a place he normally can’t be coaxed into). He is also afraid of fireworks and gunfire, but much more mildly. He will come to me for comfort or just lay on his bed and pant. During fireworks I can sometimes play with him indoors to distract him but I would not consider leaving him home alone just because I feel bad for him.

    1. Hi Celeste,

      Veterinary behaviorists take sound phobias in dogs very seriously and such phobias often get worse. Here is a list of the board certified vet behaviorists in the U.S.

      Many can work through your local vet.

      You also might want to check out the website or Facebook group. The group is public to view, but a low-cost webinar is required to join and participate. The webinar is great! But you can look at the group first before you decide. (I don’t get any kind of kickback from referring you; it’s just a great resource.)

      Good luck and I hope you can get your dog some help.

  6. Wow, this is so interesting. The same thing happened to us last night (and I couldn’t figure out what was doing the beeping; I thought it was a unit on the wall that had no batteries once I unscrewed it; turned out to be a portable unit buried deep in a closet). Like your dog, my little rat terrier (also a rescue) has no reaction at all to thunderstorms or fireworks — never has. Looks at vacuums suspiciously, but no fear. Up till now, I thought she wasn’t afraid of anything. But this quiet chirping caused a racing heart and violent shaking, plus all the symptoms you describe. She didn’t even want food (and if you know rat terriers you know how serious that is). When I took her outside for her morning walk, she didn’t want to come back inside.

    1. I’m so sorry! I hope it doesn’t spread to other high-pitched noises. I don’t know if I put it in the blog, but I have switched to smoke detectors with very long lasting built-in batteries. If your dog doesn’t improve, you might want to consult your vet and or a vet/behaviorist. Noise phobias can get pretty serious. (My dog is on medication now.) Good luck! Love rat terriers.

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