Thousands of dogs across the country are about to experience extreme stress and anxiety as the thunderstorm season hits their area. Veterinarians and animal behaviorists call thunderstorm phobia one of the most difficult behavior problems to treat in dogs.
The dogs' symptoms range from trembling to destructive behavior as they attempt to deal with this phobia. Owners who are unable to resolve the problem often turn their dogs in to animal shelters, and many of those dogs are euthanized for lack of a solution or a home.
Thunderstorm phobia is a "complex and complicated" problem. Based upon more than 25 years' experience in canine behavior, it's evident to me that it's not as simple as dealing with the sound of the thunder, itself.
A 2003 study by Sharon Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, concluded that "... audio recordings of storms do not provide a complete set of storm-related stimuli." Also, in a 2001 paper published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, E. C. McCobb and others wrote: "The composite nature of this phobia makes it resistant to treatment with systematic desensitization to a single stimulus."
Most recordings used in an attempt to cure a dog's fear of thunder, gunfire, and fireworks are not designed for that purpose. First, the program has to start with a recording designed for this specific problem. Further, a dog's fear of thunder, specifically, can also be triggered by the lightning, changes in barometric pressure, static electricity, and even the smell of ozone in the air. So success also depends upon how well all of these factors are addressed in the behavior-modification program.
To help a dog that fears thunder:
* Do not react to the dog's fear. Neither coddling nor scolding will have the right effect.
* Try distracting the dog by engaging it in play, taking it through obedience commands, or some other activity that refocuses the dog's attention.
* Spray an odor eliminator to deal with the possibility of ozone odor.
* Provide your dog with access to a "safe place" when storms occur.
* If your dog is used to being crated for rest purposes, consider placing it in the crate during thunderstorms and covering it - while providing adequate ventilation.
* Wipe the dog with a static eliminator such as used for clothing.
* Use an anxiety wrap to reduce stress.
* Consider homeopathic treatments or pharmaceuticals under a veterinarian's guidance.
Many dogs react negatively to loud noises because of the way the sound is processed in their brains. Their fight-flight response may be working overtime due to the way they are wired. Since dogs' brains, like those of humans, are nourished and supported by what the dog or person eats, many dogs also overcome their phobias more easily when they are given a "clean" healthy diet that is supplemented by nutrients essential to helping the brain process information more effectively.
Of course, prevention is most important. Start when the dog is young by associating loud noises with positive experiences. For example, turn the sound of thunder into an opportunity for the dog to have fun playing fetch. Also, stay calm yourself when any loud noises occur, especially thunder. Young dogs are impressionable, and your behavior may signal the dog that thunder is something to fear. Your negative reactions, themselves, could even frighten the dog.