Rescue Journal

What horrors haunt the minds of dogs?

Jean  ·  Jan. 9, 2007

It is the middle of the night and here I sit trying to understand what demons Isaac fights. Tonight a behaviour I thought idiosyncratic became a full-fledged obsession as he desperately tried to escape the one sound that seems to terrify him - the sound of someone coughing.

From the first week he came to me last August, I had noticed that he would bolt upright and run for the back door, even out of a deep sleep, if I coughed. I thought little of it, assuming perhaps the sound of someone clearing their throat was a part of his previous life in which it heralded the arrival home of someone he loved.

Not so. He is terrified of the sound of a cough. Or of my cough. And I have the flu. And when I get sick, I get a cough. A bad one.

At first, Isaac was just pacing after I went to bed. I thought he was restless because I had been at work for nine hours today - the longest I have ever left him - and then I came home and crawled into bed, so he got little fresh air and exercise.

But when the first bout of coughing started, he bolted. Straight to the back door. Pawing to get out. So I let him out, but then he wouldn't come in. Treats didn't work. The leash didn't work. So, with the philosophy of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" I donned my bathrobe and gumboots and wandered the yard with him at 2 AM.

And that's when I noticed - every time I coughed, he ran from me.

I finally lured him back into the house with the highly-prized liver brownies. As I sipped ginger tea, he lay beside me. And then I coughed again. And he panicked. He not only ran to the back door but immediately started tearing at the molding with his teeth in a frantic attempt to escape.

We have repeated the routine three times now - every time I cough, he bolts to the door and starts eating his way out. I'm hesitant to just leave him outside because (a) there are still bears around and coyotes and other dangers and (b) I realized yesterday that he could, if he wished, push his way through the bungy-corded gate to the back pasture and from there he could escape. And I haven't had time to fix that problem to my satisfaction.

So here I sit, wide awake, fretting about a dog who won't stay inside with me, checking him every five minutes, and frightening him still more when I cough again.

It's going to be a long night. It's going to be a long week. And I leave for work in four hours, so I'm just praying that I can get him inside and that he won't eat his way out of the house while I am gone.

I don't know what a coughing human once did to him, but whatever it was it haunts him still.

4:07 AM - and I just realized this means he definitely does have some hearing. He had me convinced he was a totally deaf dog when in fact he was choosing to ignore me!



MacKenzie is terrified of a thousand different sounds and sensations. We have AceVet (or however it's spelled) for the very worst episodes, but mostly we just keep her safe, as close to us as possible. I used to hope that time would heal some of her deepest hurts, and that, if we tried really hard, loved her enough, reassured her enough, she would not be so often caught in a web of sheer terror over the wind, or lightning, or things that go bump in the night. I now just hope that she is with one of the humans who love and understand her whenever a scary thing happens. My worst fear for her is that she'll be alone and afraid.


I'll try hugging him to my chest and see if he gets the picture....I did try lying on the floor to cuddle with him last night (something he usually loves) but he wouldn't even lie down beside me - kept shoving my head with his as if trying to push me back up. I had a terrible time coaxing him into the house before work - he was actually trembling, tail tucked in, head down, ears sideways. However, when I got home just now, there is no damage so he has been fine while I was away.
Chris, I used to take Delsym but it does nothing for me now - I get the mother-of-all-coughs. I now use a prescription called Cotridin syrup when it gets bad, as well as two types of inhalers (Ventolin and Advair). So far the cough isn't that bad, so hopefully I can work with Isaac today to help desensitize him before it reaches that point (or, if I'm lucky, I'll get over it before it gets that bad).

Thanks for the soup, Deb and Chris!!! And Isaac and Charley thank you for the liver brownies!

Chris T

I found a great cough medicine when I had my 6 week cold from hell. It is called delsym and seemed to work very well. I would give it a try.


and if you speak to deaf people about deafness, they will tell you that certain sounds are actually magnified and painful.


i suspect he has been profoundly deaf for so long that the sudden deep, resonating sound out of no where sounds like a gunshot or thunder to him. next time you cough jean, hug him to your chest while you give him a reassuring cuddle so he knows it is you making that gawd awful racket. ( try to cough gently so he gets the picture without thinking you have both been shot.)


I always wondered if Fred lived with a smoker or someone with a rep. illness and it brought back bad memories for him?


Rae, that is so weird! I'm gonna have to get visitors to cough and see if he reacts that way to everyone or just me. I'm sure my mom was coughing over Christmas and he didn't bolt then, so maybe it is something to do with the frequency - or the fact that it's the primary caregiver, the person he most depends on, who is making the scary sound.


Fred does exactly the same thing Jean. If I cough or sneeze he is gone like a bat out of hell. Seems to be more my cough than anyone elses. You should see me when I was sick coughing into a pillow in the middle of the night so he doesn't hear. How odd that they both have the same behaviour, especially since they do have a hearing impairment.


Hi Ellen. You could be right, or maybe he senses the vibrations caused by a forceful cough in a way that is absent with ordinary speech. But the panic reaction is worrisome - he acted terribly afraid.
I finally put a leash on him and tied the other end to my wrist so I could get an hour's sleep without worrying that either he would take off or that he would eat the house, and other than being yanked off the bed twice, it seemed to work (or maybe I just didn't cough cuz I was sleeping!)and he is a bit calmer now. He is outside again now, but lying in his usual favourite outdoor spot right beside the house.

Looking at the kitchen and back doors now that I am awake, I see he did a fair amount of damage in the few minutes he attacked them so I guess I better add a couple of repair jobs to my to do list (and gawd I hope he doesn't eat his way out today - He ripped the molding loose with just one crunch).


Hi Jean,
Sorry to hear about your sleepless, flu-lousy, restless Isaac, night.
I wonder if coughing might be the only audible frequency that Isaac, in an otherwise silent world, is still able to hear.

Sorry its been such a rough few days for you. Hope you get well soon.