I was having a hard time deciding what to write about this month, but the topic came to me quite abruptly this morning in the form of crashing thunder that shook the house. Fortunately, Chase remained curled up in bed next to me, but I see many dogs in my practice that are inconsolable during thunderstorms.
I don’t know whether my efforts to help Chase deal with loud noises when he was a puppy made any difference, but it sure didn’t hurt. I noticed as early as 3 months of age that he would startle at sudden noises. So whenever Chase flinched or scooted away at any unexpected sound, I immediately acted happy and gave him lots of tasty food.
I still carry treats with me on walks just in case (we’ve encountered firecrackers, barking Cujos, jackhammers and fire trucks with sirens blaring to name a few). I think my “treat parties” during such events help Chase make positive associations with loud noises. This kind of learning by association is called Classical (or Pavlovian) Conditioning. The animal makes an association between two events (stimuli), so that one predicts the other (e.g., passing truck predicts great food).
Fortunately, a fearful animal can be helped by using behavior modification techniques that rely on Classical Conditioning. This is done by pairing something the dog enjoys with something he fears, and is done in a gradual manner. Of course it is easier to create a positive association before a negative association is established. But if your dog is already afraid of something that he cannot easily avoid, make the effort to help him cope.
Back to thunder phobia. I don’t know of any studies showing that thunder phobia can be prevented. Dogs that are afraid of thunder are not necessarily afraid of other loud noises such as gunshots and fireworks, although the two often go hand in hand. There seems to be a correlation between separation anxiety and thunder phobia as well. There may be a genetic influence.
What makes treatment of thunder phobia difficult is that gradual exposure (desensitization) to real storms is not possible. You can’t control the volume of thunder or other factors that predict an approaching storm such as changes in barometric pressure, static electricity buildup, wind, and darkening clouds. But there are things that you can do that might be helpful. They include:
Playing a CD of a thunderstorm, starting at a very low volume and pairing it with food and relaxation. http://throughadogsear.com/sound-therapy-thunderstorm-remedy Once a positive association is created at a low volume, increase the volume in small increments, each time working with the dog so he remains relaxed and happily eating treats.
Putting a pressure wrap on the dog such as a Thundershirt ™ or Anxiety Wrap™ when you know a storm is coming but before your dog is in full panic mode. It is like swaddling a fussy baby. Even a wide Ace bandage wrapped around the torso has been shown to calm anxious dogs. http://www.ehow.com/how_6173772_wrap-dogs-treat-anxiety.html
Creating a safe enclosed place in a basement or interior section of your house with no windows. Outside sounds should be muffled or drowned out with a white noise machine or relaxing music (www.throughadogsear.com) Practice happily going to the safe place when it isn’t storming. Associate the place with good treats, relaxing massages (if your dog enjoys them), and pleasantly chilling out with you. If you have multiple dogs, bring them along to help calm the phobic dog.
Using Comfort Zone with D.A.P.™ room diffuser, spray, or collar. D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pherome) mimics the scent of a nursing bitch and is calming to many (but not all) dogs. This product can be found in most pet stores.
The best article I have read about treating thunder phobia was written by a dog trainer named John Visconti. He calls it the Bunker Protocol and incorporates all of the dog’s senses in creating a relaxing, calm association with the safe place (bunker). You can read it here (scroll down to “canine thunder phobia”): http://risingstardogtraining.com/resources/
If the dog’s phobic response is severe and the above methods do not help after a fair trial, it may be time to consult your veterinarian about medication. Anti-anxiety medications are very effective in calming the nervous system and should be used in conjunction with behavior modification for best results.
Addressing fears and phobias takes time and patience. You might not see a complete cure, but it is worth doing all you can to help decrease your dog’s stress and improve his quality of life.