Are Dogs Ever Irritated by Sights, Sounds, or Smells?

That’s a serious question on my part, not clickbait. I don’t know the answer. And I’m not talking about fear; I’m talking about being bothered. I’m wondering about it because of a recent experience.

My little Zani is clinically sound phobic of high-frequency sounds such as beeps and whistles. Because of meds and careful application of desensitization and counterconditioning, her default response these days to hearing any sort of digital beep is a positive one. She turns to me or even runs to me to look for a treat. Take a look/listen.

Caution: the following before/after movie has digital beeps in it.

Once in a while when she will still melt down if she hears something quiet in the distance that’s within her “scary” category It might be a bird, an alarm, or even some kind of clicking. And we still haven’t tackled the low battery chirp of the smoke alarm. But even with the remaining scary things, her recovery time is minutes, rather than the hours or days it used to be.

She has never been afraid of thunder or fireworks (except the whistling kind). She has an apparently normal startle response to unexpected loud noises, but doesn’t stay in a fear state.

Even though she isn’t bothered by booms and roars, what happened the other day surprised me.

What a Lovely Day To Get Some Sun!

This scene is not as peaceful as it looks.

Looks pretty idyllic, right? It was a lovely spring day. And as much as I’d like to leave the punchline inside the movie, here’s a spoiler for those people with dogs who are afraid of roaring engines. There is a terrible noise of that sort in the video.

That noise, my friends, is the neighbor’s generator. It has not one, but two unrelated low frequencies that spin off a pack of unlovely overtones. You probably can’t hear the lower frequencies if you watch it on a handheld. If so, you’re lucky. The full effect is extremely unpleasant—although apparently not for my dogs. Go figure.

Response To Noise: Fear Vs. Irritation

Most studies about noise affecting animals deal with either sounds that are loud enough to be physically damaging, or sudden sounds that evoke a startle response. There is at least one study about the response of dogs to noise. It took place in a shelter and centered on barking. In the kennel environment, the sound was chaotic, varying, and loud enough to cause hearing damage. That’s a crucially important welfare issue, but it doesn’t fit the situation I’m curious about: lower level but constant/repetitive noise.

My teacher reminds me now and then to watch for dogs “voting with their feet.” If something bothers them, they will often leave.

But thinking back, the only time I see them do that is when they are afraid, or when they are being hassled by another dog. (Of course I intervene but I’m not as quick as a dog!) I’m sure it happens when dogs are being bothered by humans or other species as well. But those all qualify as space invasions, either tactile, or via body pressure, or through staring.

Have I ever seen a dog leave the scene because of a sensory irritation? Have I seen them leave in response to an ongoing repetitive noise, blinking light, or even an overwhelming odor? I don’t think so. I’ve seen the equivalent of an “eww” response when a dog sniffed citrus, but they just backed off a little. They didn’t leave the room.

This is especially interesting given the sensitivity of dogs’ noses. We are warned not to overwhelm them with odor. But given the comparative strengths of our olfactory senses, we probably overwhelm them all the time.

Response to Obnoxious Odor

I don’t use many scented products. I don’t use incense (dated myself there!), room sprays, plugins, or scented laundry products. There’s but one exception. I make melt-and-pour soap, and I have some small amounts of high-quality essential oils. I sometimes scent the soap lightly. A while back I made some bars of soap, and I accidentally dumped way too much violet essential oil into a batch. The odor was so “loud” it gave me a headache.

I hate to waste stuff. So I tried to get the odor out of the soap. I left the completed bars of soap out in a closed room for a few days to air out. Didn’t help, and the odor in the house was still strong. I let them sit in the sun on the back porch for a few days. Didn’t help. Finally, I remelted them, which the soap mavens say gets rid of fragrance. We’re told that the oil will vaporize before the soap melts. I even let it boil for a while. This did help, but it only took the fragrance down from headache range to obnoxious. But at that point, I was able to bag them up and put them in a drawer, and that was tolerable. The house returned to normal (per my olfactory sense). I take them out one by one to use. I’ll probably never use violet fragrance again after I use them up.

Now, what did my dogs do during this assault by odor? Nothing. They didn’t come in the kitchen saying, “What the hell?” And whenever they were in the kitchen during a bloom of violet odor, they didn’t leave. They didn’t ask to go outside. As far as I could observe, they didn’t respond at all. This seemed like just another stupid human-related occurrence that was irrelevant to them.

What Have You Observed?

Hark, the song of the generator!

I am making no claims about dog behavior in this post. I don’t have enough information. But I’m curious. What have you observed? Have you ever seen a dog leave the scene in response to an ongoing (not sudden) visual, auditory, or olfactory stimulus when they weren’t afraid of it? Have you seen the equivalent of the human irritation response? The “I can’t listen to that incessant scraping/roaring/rattling noise for one more minute!” response?

How about you folks with border collies? Just asking, grin.

I do wonder if it’s a difference in cognition. A lot of the stimuli humans don’t like are repetitive, my neighbor’s generator included. And our irritated response is functional. Noise that is well under the threshold for human ear damage has been shown to have negative neurological and cognitive effects on humans.

I have used brown noise to mask scary sounds for the dogs, but it is not something I would choose to leave on otherwise.


We do habituate. But case-by-case, it’s hard to predict whether we will habituate or sensitize to a stimulus. I don’t mind the repetitive swell of cicadas in the summer, that is, when I’m inside. For those who haven’t heard them—they can be loud. When you are out there with them, it’s hard to hear anything else. That’s another possible function of irritation. I am awed by huge waterfalls and crashing ocean waves, but I confess that the masking effects bother me. I don’t feel safe because I can’t hear other things in the environment. That’s another effect my neighbor’s generator has on me, but apparently not on my dogs.

The song of the generator

Competing Reinforcers

Some astute folks are going to point out that perhaps the dogs found being in the sun so pleasant that they were tolerating the noise. That’s possible, but it’s a big yard with lots of places they like to bask. From their behavior, it seems to me that either they really don’t mind, or they don’t know that they could escape at least some of the continuous noise by moving to a different sunny place in the yard. As a friend said recently, “Don’t you wish they could tell us?”

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Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

23 thoughts on “Are Dogs Ever Irritated by Sights, Sounds, or Smells?

  1. My previous dog, Sophie, became quite afraid of high-pitched, non-ending noises at the end of her life. That was probably related to her cognitive decline. But if the smoke alarm went off, she ran from the house if possible. I’m not sure that fits your question, though.

    1. Yeah, related, but not exactly what I’m talking about I guess. Hard to think there wasn’t some kind of fear with the non-ending high pitched noise. Thanks for the comment, Laurie!

  2. Too funny! My dog Nelly is very irritated when my cats do something that she considers out of order. E.g. climbing up things. She is more irritated at night when we’re sitting on the couch and the cat tries to climb a shelf unit that I have. Actually she is more irritated by everything in the evening. Why? My guess is because she is trying to go to sleep at that time. Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing. But I get irritated when I’m trying to sleep and things are waking me up to so that’s why I interpreted that way

    1. Oh Sharon, that is fascinating! I hadn’t really thought of things other animals do unless they were physically intrusive. That sounds like a really good example of a dog getting irritated.

  3. I can’t think of an instance where a sound or odour seemed to irritate my dogs. For example all three are sound asleep in the living room while there is someone using a power sander and a loud vacuum cleaner not far away. I want to flee from the house but they seem unconcerned. They do run from the vacuum but I think they are afraid of the machine moving around rather than the noise.

    1. So glad that it’s not just my dogs! Thanks for commenting. And yes, I agree about the vacuum. A bit of a different situation.


    2. I’m pretty sure my dog will move from low key annoying noise- if thr vacuum is running innthe other room, or the blender is on down stairs she will often seek a quieter space. Most notably she seems to find wind irritating when it ruffles her fur (she will go out for essentials like peeing, but wont chose to sunbathe or will chose too find a sheltered spot).

  4. So there are a number of stories on my greyhound message board of dogs becoming agitated at the smell of lamb cooking. I’ve never experienced it, but there are enough of them (and reports elsewhere on the internet) that it seem to be a “thing”. I recall researching it a while back and coming across this possible explanation:

    “Minced lamb samples (lean meat or adipose tissue) from 12-week-old ram lambs and wethers were fried in the absence of added fat. The headspace aroma components were isolated onto Tenax GC prior to thermal desorption. A total of 132 compounds were identified and a further 31 were partially characterised by GC-MS, 49 of which are reported here for the first time as components of sheep meat aroma. One of these, 4,6-dimethyl-1,3-oxathiane , which has not previously been reported in any meat, was associated with a stale/wet animal odour.”

    Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture Volume 69, Issue 4, pages 403413, December 1995 #9

    Some of the reported responses are of panic so for some it does seem to be a fear response, but I find it interesting in it’s uniqueness that a dog could randomly be triggered by the smell of meat cooking.

  5. Darwin, my schipperke, gets quite offended by the scent of hand sanitizer. If you sanitize your hands, then a short time later he smells your hands, he starts kinda snorting/sneezing while digging his face into the nearest blanket or dog bed while kicking his back legs. Then he stares at you quite intensely. It very much appears he is saying “WTF, is that stuff on you! It stinks!” He doesn’t appear fearful in anyway (he is afraid of smell of rawhide/bully stick type chews). He also shows irritation with me when I don’t understand what it is he wants, by literally stamping his feet like a frustrated toddler.

    1. That’s interesting, Angela! It sounds like the smell physically bothers him. I wonder why that particular smell!! I love schips. He sounds really cute!

  6. This reminds me of something I was wondering yesterday. We still have snow on the ground here and at the same time the sun is getting stronger. I was out long enough, without hat or sunglasses, that I got a headache from the sunlight reflecting off of the snow. I wondered if my dogs, who were outside with me, ever get headaches from the sun, or from anything else for that matter.

    Then that made me think about odor. With dogs’ olfactory capabilities, how do they not get overwhelmed by the quantity and intensity of odors? Because it doesn’t seem like they do. My guess is along with their smelling sensitivity, they have different processing abilities as well. Some people experience sensory overload due to processing differences in their brains so it might make sense that it’s a processing difference that allows dogs to have such heightened abilities (compared to us) and still function in a world full of sights, sounds, and smells.

    Thanks for letting me think out loud… I’m glad I’m not the only one who wonders about such things!

    1. Yes! I wonder so much about that, too. What sensory things that bother them might we be missing, or misattributing to something else? Thanks for posting your musings! It’s all so interesting!

    2. Alexandra Horowitz, in her book, Being a Dog, says they often are overwhelmed by the richness of smells. I don’t have at hand, but I recall that search dogs can get too close to the target odor and become agitated and confused because it’s all too much. She also says that a dog can smell the surroundings the way we can listen to a symphony: first hearing the combined elements, then maybe following only the violins, then shifting attention to focus on the percussion section, then tuning out everything but the woodwinds. They can do the same with a nose full of scents. A Good read, if you haven’t yet.

      1. Thank you for this, Nicola!I’ve read Inside of a Dog, but not this newer one. Will do!

  7. I can only think of one such thing, but one of my dogs cannot stand the smell of alcohol on a human’s breath. There are people she just loves and normally would greet and want to be petted by, but when she smells alcohol on that same person, she cowers and skitters away. She came to me when she was age seven, so I can’t tell you whether there was ever a bad experience along these lines.

    1. Oh, that’s interesting! I have heard of other dogs reacting to that, but I can’t remember whether any of them had a known bad history with that or whether people were speculating. Thanks for commenting!

  8. One day years ago I was at an event with my rough collie. Unfortunately, I had wandered right in front of a loud-speaker when a concert for children began. It was too loud for both of us. I cannot pinpoint what my dog actually did but she looked uneasy. She didn’t pull away or do anything obviously ‘I don’t like this’ type of behavior. She could not leave because she was on leash but I think she relaxed when we walked away from the blaster. She was not fearful of noises. After the short concert they had fireworks. My dog never had issues with them but because I knew she didn’t like very loud noises we avoided going outside at new year nights (another reason being the danger of drunk people getting stupid ideas).

    This dog also reacted to air compressors, water sprays, and air guns. She appeared excited but I have no idea why and what was she really feeling. It was not fear, her body language was alert and confident: tail wagging and carried high, confident posture, moving and looking towards things, not away from them, no signs of aggression or other defensive behaviors. She rushed to the site where she heard the noise, barked, and ran back and forth.. Do dogs feel air pressure change suddenly? Do those contraptions cause some high pitched whizzing noise the dog reacted to? I have no idea.

    Some of our dogs have sneezed when they smell fuel.

    My younger dog knows to walk away but it might not be for one sensory stimulus alone. She lives with one adult and a cat. We were visiting my family and my nephews and siblings were there too. My dog was obviously cumulating something with so many people and animals around but she withdrew by herself into another room, jumped on the bed and curled there. She was there for hours. Again, months later, I visited my brother, babysitting his kids and the dog was with me. She went to another room when she wanted to be alone. She is fine with kids, likes to be petted and slept next to them during the night.
    This dog also goes nuts when I sneeze. A bit like the collie did over the water hose.

    1. Wow, that’s especially fascinating about the air compressors! I’ve never heard that one before, except as a fear reaction, and I believe you that this was something different.

      That is cool that your dog will withdraw when things get to be too much.

      Thanks for the interesting comment!

  9. This is so interesting and insightful! And not something I’d thought about deeply. I do know my 3.5 year old border collie Zucchini doesn’t like the sound of fire engines, but she doesn’t exhibit fear. We live across from the fire station, and if we are out walking and the engine comes out sirens blaring she flattens her ears and tucks her tail a bit but otherwise continues doing whatever she was doing before…almost like saying ‘ugh’. I don’t know if she would choose to move away though and I’m not sure if that is a reaction of ‘ouch my ears’ or ‘that is really annoying’. The younger one couldn’t care less. Zucchini also tends to be bothered more by other bothersome things like space intrusion or a twig caught in her fur.

    I can only think of one example of either dog being bothered to any extent by a smell. Two months ago my partner had a pot of water on the stove while my dogs and I were asleep in the bedroom, didn’t notice it boil over and put out the gas stove flame. The stove was still on, so the apartment filled with gas smell. Zucchini woke me up by jumping off the bed, going to the door, and coming back to me (which she never does, once asleep she doesn’t get up until morning). She led me to the kitchen, I identified the problem, aired out, everyone was fine. But she never seemed scared and she knows what the smell is. Maybe it was just because it was very unusual? I think she got bothered by it and wanted me to fix it asap. Or would that be better described as ‘concerned leaning toward worried’? At least I’m fairly confident she’ll alert me if there’s ever smoke in the house!

    1. Wow! Hurray for Zucchini! I’m speechless at that story. “Make it right, mom.” Tell her for me that that was a really good thing to be bugged about.

      That’s really interesting about her “Ugh” response, too. Thanks for sharing. Those are great observations!

  10. There are some odors that will have both of our dogs heading in a different direction. One example is the waterproofing for my boots. They both always seem to be in agreement. Fireworks, gunshots, and thunderstorms will also have them staying close even when they are just lounging around the house.

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