Thunderstorm and other noise phobias are a common behavior problem I’m called on to address, and are very treatable. They’re also one of the problems that I find owners to be much less concerned about then they should be, despite the very real risk they pose to dogs. Here’s the take-home message: if your dog has a noise phobia, it is inhumane not to address it. Let’s talk about how to do so.
Noise phobias often develop later in a dog’s life, with the majority of the cases I see becoming critical between the ages of 4-8 years. Once a dog begins to display noise sensitivity, this issue tends to continue worsening until it’s addressed. Dogs become more and more sensitized to the noise, sometimes also becoming concerned about other triggers that they associate with that noise, such as grey skies, lightning, rain, or changes in barometric pressure.
Noise phobic dogs may pace, pant, whine, tremble, attempt to escape, or hide. Many of these dogs choose to hide in bathrooms, often wedging themselves behind the toilet. Some dogs become much more clingy, wanting to be held. Regardless of the exact behaviors they exhibit, these dogs are suffering.
How we treat thunderstorm phobia will depend on many factors, including the severity of the dog’s anxiety, the ability of the owner to carry out behavior modification plans, whether or not we’re currently in thunderstorm season, and the dog’s living environment. The individualized plan I put together often includes multiple facets. Here are a few of the more common treatment options that can help:
Dog Appeasing Pheromone: Sold under the brand name Comfort Zone, this is a synthetic version of a comforting pheromone that mother dogs release while puppies are nursing. It is available in diffuser, spray, or collar forms, with the diffuser being the most helpful option for most of my clients. This pheromone can help to reduce mild anxiety in some dogs, although it doesn’t work for every case. Usually clients who report success with this don’t notice a huge difference initially, but report that when the diffuser runs out after about 4 weeks they realize that it had been helping.
Thundershirts or Anxiety Wraps: these special wraps work on pressure, fitting very snugly around the dog’s body. Some clients have also used snug t-shirts with similar success. While not the miracle cure that most people hope for, these can again be helpful for some dogs with mild anxiety. They work on the premise that deep pressure can help calm the nervous system – much the same way that swaddling an infant or using a hug vest for a child with autism can be helpful. Be aware that some dogs shut down when wearing these garments. While a dog who has shut down may appear calm, they are not in a positive mental state and the shirt is likely doing more harm than good. If your dog refuses to move or to eat treats while wearing the thundershirt, it is not the correct tool for him, regardless of how “calm” he may appear to be.
Through a Dog’s Ear Music: This special music is designed to have a physiological calming effect based on bioacoustical research. Before using it during thunderstorms, we play it for several weeks during times when the dog is calm and relaxed to further associate the music with pleasant feelings. Playing it during the beginning of a storm may help some dogs to become less panicked.
Changing the Association: regardless of which of the other therapies we use, this behavior modification is absolutely necessary. The basic premise is simple: thunder predicts good things for your dog. How we implement it is highly individual. Some dogs enjoy having their frisbee tossed after each rumble of thunder, while others learn that thunder makes pieces of chicken and cheese rain from above. (By the way, these exercises aren’t a bad idea to do even if your dog doesn’t currently exhibit noise issues, since they can also be preventative.)
Medication: a truly panicked dog cannot learn, so treatment of thunder phobia often involves the use of medication. There are many different anxiety medications available, and teaming up with a vet who is knowledgable about the different choices is critical for success. Please note that acepromazine, a medication that some vets still prescribe, is never an appropriate choice in cases of anxiety or aggression. An appropriate anxiety medication should not knock your dog out, but rather should simply cut through the anxiety so that he can begin making new associations.
Anxiety medication puts dogs who are too distressed to learn into a state where they can do so. Oftentimes medication in these cases is only temporary, and can be weaned off once the other treatments have done their job. Some clients are resistant to the idea of using anxiety medication. It’s important to remember that anxiety oftentimes has a physical cause, and treating your dog with anxiety medication is no different than treating a heart condition with beta blockers or diabetes with insulin.
Other Treatment Options: As I mentioned before, treatment of thunder phobia is highly individual. Some of my clients have benefitted from other treatments, such as TTouch massage, essential oils, mat or crate training, soothing praise from their owner, tug sessions, relaxation training, setting up a safe room, and the like.
The good news about thunderstorm phobias is how very treatable they are. Like any other training, the sooner the behavior issue is addressed, the faster the behavior modification goes. A dog who’s just starting to show some mild concern will be much more easily treated than a dog who panics and squeezes himself under the toilet while trembling violently, although the latter can absolutely be helped. Contact us to set up a private training consultation if your dog shows signs of thunder phobia.
Next week we’ll share a case study of a severely thunderstorm phobic dog. In the meantime, does your dog show any signs of anxiety during storms? What helps him the most? Did you do any preventative work with your puppy or newly adopted dog to prevent storm anxiety? Please share your stories in the comments below!