Have you ever had a panic attack? No? Has your pet?
A lovely client of mine emailed a video of her dog during the big Sydney storm we had two weeks ago. There is no other way to describe it except for a panic attack. The poor dog was running around, howling, drooling and trying to break down a door to get out of the house. The video ended with him vomiting in the house ☹ Nobody would argue that this dog was distressed.
Now, not all animals will show such an intense response – but studies suggest up to 50% of our household dogs are scared of thunder. This can develop for various reasons such as a genetic sensitivity, a traumatic experience during a thunder storm, social transmission (learning from another storm-phobic animal) or as a result of a generalized anxiety disorder.
What can we do?
Studies have shown that positive exposure to sounds including fireworks, engine noises and thunder in the first 6 months of life can be protective against phobia development at a later stage. 1
Playing with your puppy while introducing these sounds means they accept the noise as normal and so are less likely to develop fear responses as they get older.
Too late for prevention – so what next?
If you already have a dog with a storm phobia it is not a lost cause!
For some dogs, like my client’s dog above, the phobia is too intense and medication helps him cope with any up-coming storms. If your dog is getting very stressed talk to your veterinarian or vet behaviourist about whether medication is the right choice for your pet.
Consider getting an Adaptil diffuser or collar to use on your dog.
Manage the situation
When a storm hits there are a number of things you can do to help your dog:
• Minimise exposure to lightning by closing the blinds or curtains.
• If your pet wants to hide, let it. If hiding is their preferred choice of coping, provide them with a box or a place to hide.
• Try distracting your pet with treats and a game. You could even throw a ‘thunder party’! Get your pet excited, play with them, throw treats and make the storm event a great time.
• Consider a thunder jacket.These can help some dogs by making them feel safe and secure.
• Play music.Either calming music such as classical, or even music with a distracting beat (such as rap – Snoop Dog) are anecdotally the best.
• If cuddles help, go ahead! Remember you can’t reinforce fear! If a cuddle helps calm your dog down then go for it.
The ultimate aim of managing a dog with storm phobia is to stop the phobic responses entirely or at least reduce the intensity of their panic.
We do this by going through a process of desensitisation and counter conditioning. This basically means we take the thing they are scared of (loud thunder noise), make it small, so small that they don’t react fearfully (by playing it very quietly) and pair it with something good (a yummy treat or a game). This is a slow process, but it enables us to teach the dog that thunder isn’t so scary and is actually something pretty good – as it predicts the arrival of treats!
As with all behaviour modification, it is crucial that this process is undertaken in a controlled, consistent manner So for further information on how to make your pet’s life that bit better contact me at Julie@Lifeonfourlegs.com.au.
1. (Appleby DL, Bradshaw JWS, Casey RA. Relationship between aggressive and avoidance behaviours by dogs and their experience in the first 6 months of life. Vet Rc 2002; 150:434-8)