Thunderphobia in Canines
Myth: "Dogs will eventually outgrow a fear of thunder or other loud noises without treatment."
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.
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.
photo provided by Steve Albers