Training Programs Calm Dogs' Fear of Thunderstorms
By Steve Dale
For Pets Monthly
The Atlanta Journal/The Atlanta Constitution, July, 1995
A clap of thunder, a bolt of lightening and Bowser dives under the couch, hightails it to a secluded room or tears up the house in a whirlwind of panic.
It’s canine thunderstorm phobia and it’s as real as the phobia some people have about heights or flying.
Just ask Dr. William Fortney. An assistant professor of veterinary medicine at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan., Fortney initially used valium to relax his pekeapoo during thunderstorms.
Although the drug mellowed the pet, “I didn’t like the idea of having a zombie dog,” Fortney recalled. So he tried a desensitization cassette tape.
Little by little, the volume of crashing thunderstorms heard on the tape is increased. Additionally, the pooch is distracted with games and food. Eventually, if all goes well, the dog is numbed to the sound of thunder.
Fortney utilized a cassette tape program produced by dog trainer Steve Boyer, of K-9 Communications in Glenview, Ill.
Boyer believes dogs exposed to the tapes actually learn that the sounds they’ve been fearful of are really harmless. Scientists and canine behaviorists disagree, but concur that the dogs slowly become accustomed to, or desensitized, to the sounds.
The “cure” doesn’t take hold overnight, however. For Fortney’s dog, it took six months.
Marge Gibbs, of Leash and Collar Dog Training in Riverwoods, Ill., says that Krista, her 10-year-old German shepherd, has a built-in radar system that would impress the national weather service.
Since she was 4 years old, at the first sight of ominous clouds, Kirsta saunters to an upstairs bathroom and wedges herself into her own little den behind a shower stall.
Gibbs says Krista isn’t a likely candidate for desensitization tapes because the sound of thunder is just one of her many fears of storms. As soon as the dog spots distant black clouds approaching, she’s already in a fear-mode.
She reacts similarly to the smell of oncoming rain, shakes with the vibrations of thunder and closes her eyes when there’s a bright bolt of lightening.
On occasion, such secondary fears seem completely unrelated to the thunderstorm itself.
Dr. Gary Landsberg, of Thornhill, Ontario, is past president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, and has long studied dogs suffering from thunderstorm phobia. Landsberg says he knows of one dog that growls at an otherwise beloved family member whenever it storms. The pet’s odd behavior presumably dates to the time the family member accidentally stepped on the dog’s tail during a thunderstorm.
One anxious pooch sought refuge under a carport during a storm. Unfortunately, the structure collapsed on the pet, escalating the dog’s fear of thunderstorms and creating a new fear of carports.
Even when secondary fears complicate the matter, or in extreme cases of thunderstorm phobia - dogs that mutilate themselves or whip around the house like a cyclone - Landsberg says a carefully prescribed program, including a desensitization tape, can at least help calm the dog, if not completely cure it.
The prescription might include overwhelming the dog with other stimuli, a technique behaviorists call “flooding.”
“Throw a party. If the pooch loves kids, invite the neighborhood for a rainy day bash.” Gibbs suggests. “Serve doggy treats and cookies.”
Landsberg knows at least one owner who successfully played the “1912 Overture” to drown out the sound of downpours.
However, some dogs are so petrified of storms they simply won’t be distracted. They’re in no mood to party. Gibbs says many owners unknowingly reinforce a dog’s anxiety by hugging and holding it, in essence, telling the dog it has good reason to be afraid.
Don’t offer treats to a dog cowering in the corner, she warns. You don’t want to reward the pooch for being afraid.
Landsberg says that out of frustration some owners holler at their dog or punish it. That can be downright cruel. Some want their dog to face its fears and attempt to drag the panic-stricken animal out from under the bed. If you try this, remember that a phobic dog isn’t thinking clearly and may bite.
Nearly all experts agree that if a dogs is harming itself or damaging household items whenever it storms, medication may be required. But the goal should be to use smaller doses over time (literally shaving off tiny slivers of the pill with guidance from a veterinarian).
Prozac is one of several medications that may help. But even Dr. Steven Melman, a Potomac, Md.-based vet and ardent supporter of Prozac, urges using behavior modification in conjunction with drugs.
“Drugs simply mask the symptoms, and perhaps make the dog easier to live with,” says Fortney.
“Ultimately, drugs don’t cure the problem.”
Naturally, the best way to deal with a dog’s phobia about storms is to prevent the phobia from developing in the first place. Landsberg theorized that puppies can be readily socialized to anything, from loud noises to objects, when they are 4 to 10 weeks old. He asserts that some puppies simply are not exposed to thunderstorms at this formative period stage. Later in life, if genetically predisposed, they can develop a fear of storms.
Gibbs says that while there’s no scientific evidence to support this theory, it makes sense. “Gun dogs are exposed to the sound of gunfire during this same formative age. The exposure occurs at a distance and while the dogs are feeding or playing.”
Steve Boyer is now marketing desensitizing audiotapes to veterinary professionals and breeders for growing puppies. Besides thunderstorms, they include the sounds of sirens, fireworks, car horns and other urban street noises. The tapes, with instruction book, are available at K-9 communications, $19.95; (800) 952-6517.
Other tapes are also available. Ask your vet or a local dog trainer.
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