Does Your Dog Fear Thunderstorms?
By Kevin Ray, B.S. Ed., CPDT-KA
Canine Therapy Center, Inc.
Some pets become afraid of noises for no apparent cause; it is a common problem in dogs, but less so in cats. Noise fear can soon become a phobia, which is defined as a persistent, excessive, and irrational fear response. In the case of thunderstorms, pets may also detect and be fearful of storm-associated events such as changes in barometric pressure, lightning, electrostatic anomalies and even smells such as increased levels of nitrogen compounds associated with thunderstorms. Noise phobias can include the fear of thunderstorms, firecrackers, gunshots, and even the sound of certain birds.
A noise phobia may be traced to a particular negative experience of a noise, but most often, no triggering event can ever be ascertained. In almost all instances, the anxiety and distress responses resulting from certain noises or storms escalates, worsening with each exposure. Soon the pet may generalize a certain sound or event and become fearful of similar sounds or events. For example, a pet fearful of thunder may also become fearful of rain, or even clouds in extreme cases. Or, a dog afraid of gunshots may show fear at the mere sight of a hunting rifle or a clicking sound similar to a gunâ€™s clicking sounds.
The owner's attitude can directly influence the severity of an animalâ€™s fear reaction. For instance, if owners themselves exhibit nervousness during storms, noise phobias in their pets may occur more often or become more severe. Similarly, if the owner attempts to comfort or soothe the animal, the animal interprets it as confirmation that there really is something to be afraid of. The petting or comforting becomes positive reinforcement of an anxious and undesirable behavior.
Suggestions for helping your pet:
1. Monitor weather forecasts closely and know when thunderstorms are likely to roll in. Anti-anxiety strategies need to be proactive; not reactive. If you know storms are likely; plan ahead and be prepared to implement these strategies prior to the arrival of thunder.
2. Provide a â€śsafe placeâ€ť or what I like to call a â€śZen Denâ€ť for your dog to hide out in during a storm. Acclimate your dog to this place. It will help if he or she positively associates this special spot with high value treats or a food-dispensing toy such as a stuffed KongÂ®. The best places are small, dark spaces such as a crate (door left open) or an enclosed room with curtains closed along with music playing to drown out the sound of the thunder. Classical music is best, or you can buy music specifically designed to relax dogs such as the music of Through a Dogâ€™s Ear which builds on the ground breaking psychoacoustic research of Dr. Alfred Tomatis (1920-2001). Dr. Tomatis is known as the â€śEinstein of the ear.â€ť He researched and discovered the extraordinary powers of sound as a â€śnutrient for the nervous system.â€ť Dr. Tomatisâ€™ therapeutic discoveries have redefined modern psychoacoustics; the study of the effect of music and sound on the human nervous system. This knowledge has been applied to the canine nervous system.
3. Consider trying a ThundershirtÂ® which is a snug fitting wraparound body shirt designed to apply gentle, constant pressure to the dogâ€™s torso. This contact is intended to decrease anxiety and fearfulness. Researcher Temple Grandin strongly believes that this type of â€śbody enclosureâ€ť has a calming effect on some people and animals.
4. Desensitization is another important tool for improving the coping skills of dogs during thunderstorms. This involves the use of a recording of thunder sounds which is initially played at a low enough volume so as not to cause any outward signs of fear or anxiety in the dog. The volume of the recording is very slowly raised over time until the dog no longer responds to the sound, even when played loud enough, and even with a subwoofer to mimic real thunder. Combine some counter-conditioning with this desensitization so that the dog receives something cherished (tug-of-war, food treats, brushing, tummy rub) while the thunder recording is playing so that he or she will hopefully begin to react positively to a real storm expecting good things to happen rather than whatever negative superstitions and phobias the dog previously had that would cause distress and anxiety.
5. Pheromone sprays and collars that use D.A.Pâ„˘ (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) are safe and relatively inexpensive and may reduce thunder-associated anxiety. D.A.Pâ„˘ was developed for pet owners by veterinarians. This pheromone mimics the properties of the natural pheromones produced by lactating female dogs. Within three to five days after giving birth, mamma dogs generate pheromones known as appeasing pheromones that give their pups a sense of well-being and reassurance.
6. Natural supplements such as L-theanine (an amino acid found in tea leaves) and melatonin (a naturally occurring hormone) may reduce anxiety and distress in response to thunder.
7. Medications that reduce anxiety (anxiolytics) may also be of some benefit. Valium and Xanax are Benzodiazepine drugs that are potent anxiolytics when used at a low dosage. Higher dosages tend to cause sedation. If such treatment is desired, your veterinarian will prescribe a â€śpractice doseâ€ť or two that should be tested independent of a storm to find the appropriate dose for your dog. Acepromazine, a commonly prescribed tranquilizer for dogs, may not be recommended because it causes sedation but does not significantly reduce anxiety. It actually increased anxiety in my dog, Sydney who seemed to be disturbed by the disconnect that was apparently created between her mind and her motor control skills.
8. Itâ€™s easier said than done, but as I stated before, you need to be a relaxed role model for your dog. Try your best to relax and behave as if everything is completely normal during the course of a storm. In fact, try putting on your happy face and using your fun voice in an attempt to sell thunderstorms as predictors of good things to come. Any anxiety on your part will be noticed and interpreted by your dog as confirmation of bad things to come. Also, be careful with attempting to soothe your dog. You may in fact be nurturing your dogâ€™s anxious state which will only perpetuate you dogâ€™s anxiety and distress.
As a Certified Pet Dog Trainer and experienced canine behavior consultant who works regularly and frequently with veterinarians, I always recommend that dog owners consult with their veterinarian prior to attempting to modify their canine friendâ€™s fears, phobiaâ€™s, anxieties, aggression issues or any other canine behavioral maladies on their own. The number one priority in treating any animal should be to do no harm. There is a lot of confusing information on the internet that can get well-meaning dog owners in trouble while attempting to help their dogs. Your dog may benefit from medication alone, behavior modification alone, or a combination of both may be required. Reputable behavior consultants have open lines of communication with veterinarians to determine which options may be best for your fir baby. Just remember, that typically there is no quick fix for behavioral issues and that time, patience, and education are also necessary ingredients in the healing process.