Lightening picture

Thunderphobia in Canines


Paul Neider

Myth: "Dogs will eventually outgrow a fear of thunder or other loud noises without treatment."

What is Thunderphobia?

Thunderphobia can be defined quite simply and precisely as a fear of thunder. What is more difficult is understanding why dogs become "crazy", even during the mildest of thunderstorms. Also, since thunderstorms are under nature's control, can anything be done to stop these dogs from becoming destructive, afraid and uncontrollable?

As a dog owner, the first step is realizing that loud noises such as thunder can terrify even the meanest of breeds. As well, it should be noted that age, sex and breed do not seem to be factors contributing to the fear of thunder. In fact, the sounds your dog may be terrified of may be too high or low for human ears to hear.

In order to help your pet, a few simple techniques can be used.

Recognizing the Sign

The first step in helping a frightened dog is to recognize the signs suggesting fear. Minor fear responses include pacing, panting, remaining close to its owner and generally looking unsettled. These responses can happen hours before the storm has even occurred, since a dogŐs ears are one of their best sensory tools. During the peak of the storm, when thunder is at itŐs loudest, fear responses can become intense. Dogs have been known to hide, jump over fences or through windows, attempt to dig into the house and in extreme cases, collapse. It should be apparent that, to the dog, the only goal is to escape danger immediately. A terrified dog is unresponsive to food, or attention such as play or praise. If your dog exhibits any number of these signs or if you know your dog is thunderphobic, there are a few methods of treatment that can be used.

A Trained Dog is a Happy Dog

A behavioural problem such as thunderphobia cannot be "taken care of" through simple surgeries nor should be treated entirely by drug therapy. In fact, one of the best treatment, which can have long lasting affects, can be administered in the comfort of your dogŐs home. Many fears or phobias can be successfully treated by using behaviour modification techniques such as desensitization and counterconditioning.

Desensitization is a process by which the animal is gradually able to overcome its fear, or is "desensitized" to the fearful stimulus. The training involves exposing the dog, at first, to very low levels of the stimulus (or in this case, playing sounds of thunder which are barely audible) such that the sound does not evoke a fear response. Once you are confident that the dog is no longer showing any signs of anxiety or distress at the low level of stimulus you can begin to increase the intensity of the sound or frightening stimulus. Again you would stop at each level prior to evoking a strong fearful response. This technique may involve playing sound tapes of thunder in a dark room to help simulate thunder storm conditions. The training may take several weeks and should cover a time period in which the possibility of a real thunder storm is unlikely to occur. A real thunder storm can cause a relapse in fearfulness if the training is not completed.

Counterconditioning is a method of changing a dog's response to a certain stimulus by associating a reward for the new response. For example, when your dog stays calm during the first playing of the thunderstorm audiotape, give it a reward (cheese, pieces of hot dog). For each successive calm response, give a reward so that the dog associates thunderstorms as non-threatening and exhibits calm behaviour. This method, when coupled with the desentization program, has a long lasting affect because the dog has learnt that thunder is not associated with fear but with being calm and relaxed. It is extremely important NOT to reward fearful behaviour nor should you punish fearful behaviour.

Another method of treating thunderphobia is by the use of drug therapy. Anxiolytic drugs (primarily phenothiazines) can calm the animal or make it easier to restrain. Phenobarbitals have also been used to stop frantic or excitable responses. Drugs can and should be used if the fear response is such that the dog can injure themselves or others, damage property or further reinforce the fear. The ideal situation is a combination of calming drugs along with the behaviour modification. The drugs should be stopped as soon as possible. You do not want the drugs to interfer with remembering the calm response (calmness should be associated with the storm and not the drugs). Drugs can be useful if behaviour modification is being conducted during the thunder storm season. Drugs can help prevent an extreme fear response from occuring during a real thunder storm before the training is complete.

It is true that dogs will not outgrow their fear of thunder and loud noises, however they can be trained to tolerate or even "enjoy" the storm with their owners through a little persistence and training.



May 1, 1997.

photo provided by Steve Albers

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