Wouldn’t it be nice if we could sit our dogs down and have a nice conversation with them over a cup of coffee or a glass of ice water? Oh sure, there are a multitude of ways to communicate with our dogs but when it comes down to it there is no way to rationalize with a dog or any other animal. At Misty Pines we say that dog’s don’t understand “bad behavior” they only understand “behavior.” This puts it on our shoulders to help the dog realize what behaviors we would like them to display and when and how to display them. When it comes to fear, this task becomes much more difficult and can often times require a trained professional to help the dog over come its fear. In certain cases the fear can never be removed, however it can be managed.
One of the biggest fears that dogs have is a fear of loud noises.
Due to this common fear more dogs run away and become lost on the 4th of July than any other day of the year. Preparations for the loud bangs, whistles, sizzles and pops that a dog will hear during backyard and professional celebrations should begin at an early age. When starting a bird dog as a pup we recommend banging its food bowls together and dropping books on the floor as a way of making loud, unexpected bangs part of the puppy’s normal life and something that can be ignored.
If the dog is out of puppy hood and is still experiencing problems with relation to storms or other loud noises it would be best to schedule an appointment with our Canine Behavior Consultant, Jeff Woods. The articles below contain useful information to help owners and pets cope with noise related anxieties and fears until you are able to have a consultation and begin the rehabilitation process:
Managing Noise and Storm Phobias
When the problematic noise or storm is occurring, how you manage the situation can help your pet cope and hopefully minimize your pet’s distress. Medication is a useful adjunct for very distressed pets but should only be used under veterinary supervision. Make sure to have prescribed medication on hand. Event medications work best if given at least 30 minutes prior to the stressful situation. Some severely affected animals may be prescribed daily medication during storm season or other noisy periods like the 4th of July holiday period.
- Pitfalls to avoid:
- Punishment must never be used since it will only increase rather than decrease your pet’s distress.
- Encouragement, praise, or fostering are not helpful either as the pet may interpret them as rewards for the behavior they are performing at the time.
- Try to remain calm yourself. If you are calm, it will help your pet.
- Useful interventions:
- If possible, make sure your pet is not alone during the stressful event.
- Create a safe and secure environment for your pet. This might be a darkened room where lightning flashes will not be noted or a windowless indoor room where sound is muted.
- If your pet has self-selected a hiding place, do not try to forcibly remove them. This is not helpful and may result in an aggressive response.
- Try playing music that is loud or has a strong beat or some type of white noise (such as an exhaust fan) to muffle the outside noises that cause the distress.
- Playing with familiar toys, engaging in games, or practicing obedience may help to distract the pet.
- Use of a head collar and leash may offer additional control and can be calming for some dogs.
- If you have pre trained your pet to go and settle on a mat, bed, or other location, use this strategy to help calm the pet.
- Finally, once the event has passed, be proactive and contact Misty Pines for information on how to start desensitization and counter conditioning exercises to help your pet cope better with the next episode.
By Nancy Kay, DVM
When we moved from California six months ago, I suspected that our two dogs, Nellie and Quinn, might not take kindly to the frequent thunderstorms we would experience in the mountains of North Carolina. My hunch was accurate. While I was enjoying the late afternoon rockin’ and a rollin’ my two little pumpkins were experiencing a whole lot of shakin’ and quakin’! Left to her own devices, I sense that Nellie would not be bothered by the thunder, but her best buddy Quinn’s panting, yawning, trembling, and clingy behavior were clearly a bit contagious.
I needed help and sought advice from colleagues who specialize in dog training and behavior. They had several good suggestions for riding out the storm with a thunder-phobic dog.
- Step number one is to pay close attention to weather forecasts and know when thunderstorms are likely to roll in. Anti-anxiety strategies are far more effective when implemented before rather than after Mother Nature’s “music” begins.
- Provide a “safe place” for your dog to ride out the storm. Ideally, this is a small, dark space such as a crate (door left open) or an enclosed room with curtains drawn along with a radio or stereo playing to drown out the sound of the thunder. Acclimate your dog to this environment. It will help if he associates this special spot with special treats or a food-dispensing toy.
- The Thundershirt® is a tight fitting wraparound body shirt designed to apply gentle, constant pressure to the dog’s torso. This contact is intended to reduce anxiety and fearfulness. Researcher Temple Grandin believes that such “body enclosure” has a profoundly calming effect.
- Desensitization is another option in which a recording of thunder sounds is initially played at a low enough volume that it does not appear to cause any fear or anxiety for the dog. The volume of the recording is very slowly increased over time until the dog no longer responds to the sound, even when loud enough to mimic real thunder. Add to this desensitization some counter-conditioning in which the dog receives something cherished (tug-of-war, food treats, brushing, tummy rub) while the thunder recording is playing, and he will hopefully begin to react to the real thing with pleasant associations rather than distress.
- Pheromone sprays and collars are safe and relatively inexpensive and may reduce thunder-associated anxiety.
- Natural supplements such as L-theanine (an amino acid found in tea leaves) and melatonin (a naturally occurring hormone) may decrease anxiety in response to thunder.
- Medications that reduce anxiety (anxiolytics) may be of benefit. Benzodiazepine drugs, such as Valium and Xanax, are potent anxiolytics when used at the lower end of the dosage range. At higher dosages they tend to cause sedation. After consultation with your veterinarian, a “practice dose” or two should be tested independent of a storm to find the appropriate dose for your dog. Acepromazine, a commonly prescribed tranquilizer for dogs, is not recommended because it causes sedation but does not significantly reduce anxiety.
- Easier said than done, but do your best to relax and behave as if everything is completely normal during the course of a storm. Any anxiety on your part will be contagious to that mind-reading four-legged companion of yours.
I encourage you to consult with your veterinarian and a reputable trainer or behaviorist as part of your dog’s thunder desensitization program. Also know that the techniques described above can be utilized for most any noise phobias (fireworks, shotgun blasts, etc.).
Here’s what I’ve done thus far to alleviate Quinn’s thunder-phobia which has, in turn, markedly reduced Nellie’s anxiety. Quinn wears a pheromone collar and when thunderstorms are in the forecast, I give him a morning dose of melatonin. These tactics combined with use of a Thundershirt® and my consciously calm behavior seem to be turning the tide for my “thunder-struck” little boy.