Coping With Thunderstorm Phobia

Working with dogs that have a fear or phobia can be complex because even though some common fears can be successfully worked with, other fears and phobias are deeply ingrained and therefore highly resistant to change. Thunderstorm phobia is a relatively common phobia for dogs, particularly for those that live in areas where thunderstorms are prolific. Shull-Selcer and Stagg (1991) reported that 93% of cases of dogs with noise phobias involved fear of thunder and other loud noises including fireworks (Lindsay 2005). Whether fear of thunderstorms is elicited by a singular traumatic experience or prolonged exposure, the result is often highly distressing for dogs and owners. Without extensive behavioral therapy and management strategies, phobias become deeply ingrained and even harder to change.

I live in the southern United States where thunderstorms are a common occurrence particularly in the spring and hot summer months. The intensity and frequency of these thunderstorms can turn any dog or human into a quivering wreck, but there are some dogs that are so badly affected that they have an inability to function hours before and during a storm. Many thunderstorm phobic dogs adopt self-management strategies in order to cope. These strategies vary from attempting to escape the home, to digging into carpets, seeking out dark den like spaces to hide in, or crawling behind a bathroom sink or toilet. Others will pace back and forth during the storm, unable to focus on owners trying to calm them down. Stress is also manifested through excessive panting, pupil dilation, sweating paws, raised heartbeat, loss of appetite, whimpering, trembling and an inability to settle.

The difficulty with behavioral modification is that thunderstorms are not easy to predict or control. A dog usually knows that a storm is coming long before an owner and becomes increasingly panicked as the storm approaches. I have found that many common modification techniques such as playing an audio recording of thunderstorms and gradually increasing the noise level while the dog eats its favorite food or plays a game, can help to counter condition the dog to feel differently about the noise of a storm, thunder being the predictor of good things rather than bad. These techniques can be effective with dogs that suffer from mild phobia, but for dogs with major fear, management and coping strategies might be the best an owner can hope for. As with all training techniques, I have learnt that treating every dog as an individual is of utmost importance and that modification and management is more likely to succeed if time is spent tailoring the training to each specific dog.

Conditioning a dog to feel different about storm noise can be achieved by gradually exposing the dog to low levels of audio recordings of storm sounds and if the dog appears relaxed, playing his favorite game or feeding him his favorite food. Allowing the dog to play and relax in the presence of the low noise for a period of ten minutes, taking a break of five minutes and repeating the exercise ensures that the dog doesn’t become bored with the training. Introducing the audio at a low level again and slowly turning up the volume if the dog continues to be relaxed and can concentrate on playing the game or eating the food allows the dog to habituate to the noise without a fear response. If the dog shows signs of stress, going back to the previous level and building up the noise level again will take pressure off. The object of noise desensitization is to gradually expose the dog to louder and louder storm sounds over a period of time, progress being determined by the dog’s reactions. Going too fast might make the dog even more frightened so taking things slowly will ensure maximum benefit from the process.

Gradually exposing the dog to flashes of light that grow in intensity and using fans to simulate increasing wind is another part of therapy, but one that can be harder to implement. I have found that these therapies are not as effective as noise desensitization. Some dogs will respond well to all of the above therapies, but will become panicked when a real storm rolls in. It is therefore important to tackle this phobia in other ways by using effective management strategies and by masking any audio and visual stimuli that elicits a fear response during a storm.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman of Tufts University in Boston has theorized that some dogs, especially long coated breeds, can become statically charged during a thunderstorm, receiving electrical shocks from static unless they can ground themselves, which is done by retreating to a bathroom and hiding behind a sink or toilet, staying close to pipes that provide electrical grounding. It is an interesting theory and one that requires more research but it would certainly support why so many dogs end up cowering in a bathroom. Either that or bathrooms are a good place to seek refuge as they tend to have small or no windows, therefore blocking out the visual of a storm. In order to reduce static build up Dr. Dodman has had success advising owners to wipe their dogs down with antistatic laundry strips and spraying anti-static spray on their dogs’ paws. I have never done this myself but I think these theories and resulting management strategies deserve further exploration.

The most important thing an owner can do for their thunderstorm phobic dog is to provide them with a bolt hole – a place where the dog can escape to in the event of a storm. Providing the dog access to this safe place is essential at all times, particularly during an owner’s absence. This might be a closet, bathroom or a basement, the best places usually being the ones that have no windows, but with plenty of artificial light (to mask flashes of lightening). If indeed static electricity is a problem for some dogs, rubber matting or tile is a good anti static material to use for flooring. Music should be played close to the safe haven so that thunder sounds can be masked. It is also essential that if an owner is present, time be spent with the dog in the safe haven or attention given to the dog if it comes to seek comfort from its owner. Far from reinforcing fearful behavior, an owner’s comforting arm and presence can help a phobic dog to cope as long as the owner remains calm at all times.

Some phobic dogs benefit from calming therapies such as t-touch, anxiety wraps, DAP collars, and Bach Flower Essences, while others do much better on anti-anxiety medication that can be given just before a thunderstorm develops or daily dosage especially during storm season. It is vital that medications are given along with behavioral therapy and management in order to give the dog the best possible chance of rehabilitation. At the end of the day thunderstorm phobia is a hard condition to treat, but trying a variety of therapies and techniques can improve a dog’s ability to cope when the big clouds roll in.

[Check out Victoria's Canine Noise Phobia Series to help desensitize your dog to thunderstorms.]

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