This time of year is called thunder storm season in vet hospitals across the country. Every year there is an influx of behavior related veterinary visits. Symptoms of thunder storm phobia include: pacing, panting, drooling, shaking, cowering, hiding and sometimes destruction in the home from dogs trying to escape the storm.
What are some causes of thunder storm phobia?
Changes in the barometric pressure can alert dogs to oncoming storms hours ahead of arrival.
The thunder itself is not only loud, but it's also unpredictable.
Thunder causes vibrations which our dogs can feel more acutely than we can.
The combination of environmental changes, and the sometimes deafening noise can paint a very scary picture for any dog.
What can we do to help?
First and foremost I want to start by saying that you can not reinforce a feeling, only a behavior. This means that you will not teach your dog to be afraid by offering it physical or verbal comfort. If being pet or spoken to in a soft voice helps reduce your dog's symptoms of anxiety, then by all means comfort them.
Ignoring the behaviors caused by fear will not resolve the issue. Your dog will still be anxious, and the behaviors caused by the anxiety may get worse over time. Correcting or punishing your dog while they are fearful will only create a rebound effect. Your dog will associate the correction with the thunder NOT with her behavior. This makes the thunder even scarier!
Giving your dog a safe place to wait out the storm can be incredibly helpful. Some dogs will try to hide in a closet, under furniture or in the bath tub. My childhood dog, Nora, had significant noise related fear. She was always chose to lay in her crate when the noise (thunder, fireworks and gun shots) was overwhelming to her. A crate can be a vital management tool for fear, but only if it's already a safe space for your dog.
My first recommendation in helping to alleviate thunder storm phobia is the use of a ThunderShirt. Wearing a ThunderShirt can help your dog to feel secure. The constant gentle pressure of the shirt is similar to swaddling an infant. Ideally, the shirt should be put on prior to the arrival of the storm or at the first sign of anxiety.
Secondly, if your dog's anxiety leads to destructive behaviors like digging, chewing, or jumping through windows, a visit to the vet is in order. There are several different kinds of behavior modifying medications that can significantly reduce your dog's symptoms.
There are many herbal remedies that are available to help with anxiety. They can be used in addition to, or in place of, a prescription medication. Rescue Remedy, VT Pet Naturals Calming Chews and VetriScience Composure are just a few supplements that are available. Consult with your veterinarian before adding a supplement on top of prescribed medication.
In order to help your dog permanently overcome thunder storm phobia it's important to follow a behavior modification plan.
First order of business is the desensitization of your dog to the sound of thunder. This can be achieved by utilizing an audio recording of thunder. You can buy a CD, look up a video on YouTube or try Sound Snap. Start by playing the recording at a very low volume while hand feeding your dog high value food, like cheese or hot dogs. As your dog is able to remain calm with the noise, slowly increase the volume.
Hand in hand with desensitization comes counter conditioning. We want to show your dog that he can exhibit relaxed behavior in an anxiety provoking situation, in this case thunder. Dr. Karen Overall's protocol for relaxation is a great tool to use in conjunction with mat work. Neither the relaxation protocol or the mat work should be utilized in a high stress situation until the exercises have been introduced successfully without stressful stimuli (ex: thunder, fireworks).
I highly recommend consulting with a qualified positive trainer to help set you and your dog on the right path. With patience and a well thought out plan, thunder storm phobia can be manged successfully.
Emily Lewis is a professional dog trainer and veterinary technician. She lives in Vermont with her three rescue dogs, tuxedo cat, corn snake, crested geckos and Russian tortoise.