Summer is upon on us. This is a warm, fun, happy time of year that offers many opportunities to be outside. Summer also offers its fair share of holidays including Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. One of the things that dogs love about these holidays is barbeques. One of things that they may not like so much is fireworks. Happily, Violet, Daisy, and Henry are largely unconcerned about these very flashy and very loud spectacles. Violet, however, is very worried for all her canine friends that are afraid of loud noises.
Some dogs experience “thunder phobia.” By definition, thunderstorm phobia is the persistent exaggerated and severe fear of thunder or similar loud sounds such as fireworks. Thunder phobia has behavioral, physiologic, and emotional elements. Behaviorally, this terrible fear can manifest itself by the dog pacing, shaking, heavy panting, vocalizing, hiding, salivation, destructiveness, or even fecal or urinary accidents. The physiologic stress can lead to an increased heart rate, increased respiratory rate, high blood pressure, and nausea.
The phobia can be debilitating for our beloved four-legged friends. It is also very frustrating for us as caregivers to not be able to help when we see our dogs in this state of inconsolable panic. We want to help but often there seems like there is little that can be done. Taking a step back and thinking about the issue before the incident can be helpful. Understanding that the phobia is not your fault is the first step in being able to help. Unfortunately, there is no one known cause. Theories as to why this condition develops include lack of exposure early in life, extension of other anxious conditions (such as separation anxiety), changes in barometric pressure, or a combination of several factors.
Despite not knowing the cause, there are things that can be done to ameliorate the condition. First and foremost, create a safe place. This should be a quiet area with soft lighting. It should be relatively small quarters and it should have ample padding. You can encourage your pet to make this area the designated safe zone by giving them treats in the space when storms are not occurring and by making it as comfortable as possible. Do not force your dog into the safe zone however as this may increase rather than decrease anxiety. Finally, the safe zone should not be a crate. Dogs with thunder anxiety may try to escape at all costs. Trying to escape from a crate in such a high-pressure state can lead to severe injuries.
Distraction may help especially in dogs with a mild form of the condition. Having a favorite toy is helpful. Prior to the event, try to get and maintain the dog’s attention on the toy. Food is another great distraction. Have you dogs favorite treat in small pieces. Then keep your dog’s attention on the food by keeping in their line of vision and handing it out every few minutes.
Behavior modification, such as desensitization, is another technique that can help some dogs. This is slow process. Patience and persistence are the keys to being successful and to avoid making the phobia worse instead of better. The goal is to teach your dog to respond to the fearful stimulus in a non-fearful way. An example of this method is expose your dog to the level of noise that is low and non-threatening and does not cause any unwanted behaviors (such as panting or pacing). It can even be paired with a favorable experience such as favorite game or a favorite treat. Gradually, the noise can be increased in intensity while still making the other elements pleasant and calm such that eventually, the noise becomes a less and less of an issue.
Although this may seem counter intuitive, it is important to not soothe or comfort your pet during the event. By giving positive attention to the behavior, it is reinforcing the idea in your dog’s mind that being fearful will get rewarded. Instead, stay as calm and as normal as possible. Paying attention to the behavior makes it stronger.
Finally, in some cases, these steps still do not help. When other options have been exhausted, consult your veterinarian as your pet may need to have pharmacologic help. Anti-anxiety medications, pheromones, and nutritional supplements can be used in combination with behavioral methods but not in place of. Your veterinarian may also make a referral to a board certified veterinary behaviorist to help navigate the combination of behavior modification and medication.
Summer can be an exciting and happy time but is it can also be stressful when a storm arises or when the fireworks start exploding. So, for Violet’s sake, start working on these issues now with your dog, rather than at the height of the storm.
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