Feb 28 2016

Storm Phobia in Dogs, by William Mandel, DVM

storm cartoon     First, we need to begin with some perspective. We are all startled by noises. Who has never heard a loud thunder crack, the kind that rumbles through the house, and has not turned and said, “That was a loud one!” or “That sounded close”. Sometimes, the rain pounds so hard on the roof and windows, we stop and look and maybe even feel nervous for a few seconds. So we need to begin with the premise that being startled by noises is not abnormal. It is a survival instinct that has ensured that all of us, including our pets, have made it this far. The ones who were never concerned about noise or storms or loud bangs long ago bit the dust. It’s normal to be startled by noise, period! That being said, after this initial startle, anxiety or fear reaction, there is a follow-up response in our brains, a period behaviorists call, “habituation”, a time that varies individual to individual in which we discern that the noise is not a threat. We may hear the thunder crack and then remember that we are in a secure, safe dwelling, it’s just thunder. We localize the source of the noise and decide it is far enough away to be non-threatening. The rain is hard but it’s not going to cave the roof in. This is how we self-soothe and it is a learned behavior. My 2 year old daughter loves trains. She likes the sight of them and the sound of them. She can stare at them for hours, (maybe it just seems that long). The first time she saw one up close, however, she cried because the sound was louder than she expected and she was scared. Soon she learned that this was a normal sound level for a train and now, she stays back but she is no longer afraid.  She habituated to the sound. By the time she is an adult, there will be a plethora of sounds bombarding her as they do all of us and she will not even hear them. Part of the issue for dogs with noise phobia is a lack of habituation. They just cannot get used to the sound. In about 1/3 of dogs, this is due to a traumatic event that the dog associates with the noise. For the rest, it can vary but is usually due to a lack of exposure to diverse sound patterns as puppies. Remember, the low rumble of a truck, the rumble of a thunderclap and the rumble of fireworks are all similar and dogs cannot rationally calm themselves like us. They do not know how well the house is constructed. They do not know the history of Independence Day. Some sounds, such as burglar alarms, are designed to be resistant to habituation. Imagine a dog locked in a home all day and the burglar alarm is sounding with nobody to turn it off. All. Day. Long. That dog will probably have some anxiety to being home alone and to the sound of alarms. By the time a dog is exhibiting the classic signs that we recognize as noise phobia, shaking, hiding, scratching, crying, they are in full blown crisis mode. This is not a question of dog intelligence and phobic dogs are NOT stupid. As it is said, if someone is running at you with a gun, you don’t consider your options, you take off, you react. Dogs with phobia usually either have not been subject to enough sounds when young to have learned normal reactions, have suffered traumatic experience, suffer from chronic stress or may even have a genetic predisposition. Remember, dogs are individuals, just like us. My sister enjoys sky diving while I begin to shake nervously if I step more than 3 rungs up a ladder. I was not left up a ladder for hours as a child, I just have a natural fear of heights. As a child, other than in a tree, I was never in that situation so now, I have a lack of habituation to heights, (although I can be high up in a tree without feeling afraid). We as pet owners need to respect that this is not a lack of intelligence or training nor is it a symptom of abuse although abused or neglected pets have higher general stress responses so may be over represented in a group of phobic dogs generally. Our pets are truly afraid. Here are some tips to prevent or ameliorate noise phobia are as follows:

  1. Expose your dog to as many people and situations as possible as a puppy. Puppy classes, parks, block parties, wherever! This makes dogs more sociable, less likely to have separation anxiety, less apt to act out aggressively towards strangers and other dogs and less likely to be afraid of noises. Take your dog on walks, socialize him or her and let the dog experience the sounds surrounding it’s life. When a sound is encountered, have treats. When it rains, play games. Make it fun.
  2. Sounds. CD’s of storms rarely are effective for advanced cases as the sounds of storms are quite different from a reproduction on a CD both in terms of bass and localization, (storms come from the sky, not the side). Music that is loud and effectively cancels out a storm, however, can be effective. William Tell Overture, white noise, even, yes, recordings of trains. Need some, I’ve got lots!
  3. Create a safe and stable environment. This cannot be overstated. Be calm, speak in soft, soothing tones and your dog will follow. Gentle massage will calm more than a plea of “It’s OK, just CALM DOWN!!” Play ball or engage your dog with other fun games, give treats and desensitize with calming sounds played over a storm. The idea is to allow the dog to learn that the storm is non-threatenting and they can best learn by seeing that the environment continues to be safe and that we are calm and happy. And you cannot fake it to your dog. They know. Telling your dog that it’s OK while worrying that they are stressed does not work. They don’t speak english. Really convey that it is OK. Soft talking, soft stroking. That’s what helps.
  4. 4. Remember your dog is an individual. Respecting that your dog does not enjoy the sound of thunder and hard rain is part of the give and take that must occur in any relationship.
  5. Drugs. Yes, there are great anxiety medications. Some dogs benefit greatly from them. It’s OK to use them.  The whole point is to give our pet a happy and comfortable life. They are members of our family that we bring in to our life,  an environment quite unlike what they were evolved to thrive within.  Anti anxiety medication can be a godsend. I used them on a noise phobic dog of mine as needed and it made a tremendous difference on his comfort level during a storm. No, they are not going to relax and play a game of twister with you during a hurricane but maybe they won’t be crawling out of their skin either.Having a dog with noise phobia can be a challenge. You may find yourself resenting fireworks and stressing about storms. It’s not about us, though. Take a step back and remember that we are taking in an animal of a different species and, despite the fact we have co-evolved and been partners for thousands of years, dogs are dogs and people are people and beyond that, dogs are individuals just as we are. They do not demand we control the weather and they are not too ignorant to understand what is or is not a threat. They love us unconditionally. Emulate that kind of love and both sides will be the richer.decoding your dog
  6. I highly recommend the book, Decoding Your Dog by The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists for more excellent information on canine behavior.


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