It can be very frustrating to owners when (seemingly) normal day to day events occur, which end up frightening or causing anxiety in their pet dog(s). Sometimes these events are natural occurrences, such as storms with loud bursts of thunder and pounding rain on the windows. Other times it may be a sound or light which is deliberately set off, such as fireworks during a celebration. Either way, anything unknown or unexpected which looks or sounds differently to your pet, can set off fear or panic in them. Some dogs may be especially more sensitive than others.
1/ Crash Boom Bang- The Storm Phobia
Storms can be a common source of anxiety for dogs. There is usually not much warning of an oncoming thunderstorm and they produce a combination of different stimuli. These stimuli can then cause fearfulness and actions such as: pacing, panting, anxiety and restlessness in your pet Some dogs may also experience a need to escape(which can result in injury), urinating or defecating in the house, abnormal vocalizing (ex: howling, crying), destruction of household items, hiding and salivation.
The good news is that if an owner can manage this condition well, then it can increase the quality of life for both the dog and themselves!
Treatment for storm phobia usually involves a few measures, including a method called desensitization. This is when the animal is exposed to the stimulus which causes fear but at a level which is lower than normal. The stimulus is then increased gradually as the dog starts showing signs of being able to cope. With storms it can be difficult as there may be many triggers. But, there are tools which can help you, such as ‘storm’ CD’s. These allow you to play the real sounds of a storm, initially at a lower level and then gradually you can increase the volume as your dog becomes more comfortable. This is one method, but again, with storms there are so many different factors involved (wind, rain, change in barometric pressure etc..) that you may need to implement other strategies as well.
Another strategy used in storm phobias is called counter conditioning. This is when you try to elicit a response that is not normally accompanied (or incompatible) with the phobia. The owner can for example try cuddling or feeding favorite treats to their pet dog while it is being exposed to a mild level of the feared stimulus. The desired result of this activity is to have the pet gain a positive association between the feared stimulus and the treats/cuddling. The animal should never be punished if he or she becomes anxious at this time, as they need to have a consistently positive association with the stimulus at all times.
Relaxation training is yet another method of helping to improve your pet’s reaction to storms. It may take time and patience, but may well be worth the effort in time! The goal of this activity is to get your pet to settle in and relax in a comfort arable place (a ‘safe haven’) and then to be rewarded. This should be done prior to the desensitization exercises. This is to ensure that the pet is able to first be calmed in the absence of the fearful stimuli. This exercise must be repeated several times a day in order to provide a good foundation.
*It’s best to begin relaxation training during times of the year when your pet’s exposure to the fear producing stimuli can be avoided.
Anti-anxiety medications are also sometimes necessary, especially when specific triggers can’t be identified. These medications include short acting drugs which have a quick onset and are usually given about 1 hr prior to the start of a storm. Long term drugs on the other hand, are given on a regular basis to reduce overall levels of anxiety in your pet.
Some additional tips on managing storm phobias are: insulating the environment by using “white” noise so that the noise level of the storm is reduced, placing your dog in a different environment (outdoors to indoors for example), using a Thundershirt (specialized shirt for dogs who have storm phobias), ear covers (Mutt-Muffs), sound muting cage covers (Thunderhut), eye covers for anxiety caused by visual stimuli (Doggles), or room darkening shades (blackout curtains/shades).
2/ Kaboom-The Fireworks Phobia
Just like storm phobias, some dogs may also exhibit extreme phobias when exposed to fireworks. This can turn a celebration into a very difficult time for both you and your dog. The difference between thunderstorms and fireworks though, is that fireworks are predictable. Since they are intentionally set off, you can use this to your advantage! This predictability helps you by being able to initially start training your dog at a distance from where the fireworks are actually located.
The best approach to a fireworks phobia is to start training your dog before the fear actually begins. Many dogs can be afraid of the unknown and therefore you can start by setting fireworks up from a distance. This allows the dog to remain at a distance but at the same time he/she should be able to see that it is a person setting the fireworks off. Sometimes this helps by removing the unknown surrounding the loud blasts and bright lights, and aids by creating a connection between the person and fireworks.
You may also be able to help your pet dog ‘tune’ out the feared noises (if that seems to be the main trigger). You can help distract your dog by giving him/her a favorite treat or by playing a favorite game at the same time as the fireworks. The mind and body can sometimes work together at overcoming fear by using these tactics…have you heard of the saying ‘mind over matter’? This applies to our canine friends as well! The focus in this case is to train as frequently as possible, and keep your dog as focussed as possible. This will condition your dog to be a bit more at ease during moments such as this.
Another tip for the firework phobic pooch is exposure. You can sometimes accustom your pet to the fireworks by VERY slowly moving your dog closer to them. If the dog becomes fearful you will need to move back once again, therefore it is important to spend a long time at each distance before moving closer. You must ensure that your dog is comfortable at each step of the way before you continue moving forward.
And now, here are some great tips on preventing firework phobias from occurring:
-Never leave your dog unattended when there are going to be fireworks. Your dog may become panicked, or may flee and become lost or injured.
–When the fireworks begin, try talking in a happy upbeat voice, animals are very aware…do not give them reason to be afraid.
– Another good idea is to reward your pet for calm behaviour; you can give them a treat or throw a ball for example.
-Fears can be contagious between dogs, make sure you train the dog with the phobia before you obtain any new dog.
-Keep an eye on your pet’s overall health; ailments such as ear infections can trigger episodes of pain when the pet is exposed to loud noises.
-Last but not least, try a ‘dog appeasing pheromone’. These are usually sprays, collars, or diffusers which you keep in your home or on your dog. Pheromone scents are contained within these products; these are chemicals which are detectable by dogs but not humans. The best part is that they help create a calm feeling within your pet! *Pheromone products are available/can be ordered through vet clinics, such as the Lansdowne Animal hospital!
On the other hand, for cases that are extreme, you can implement the same procedures as mentioned in the above ‘storm phobia’s” section. You can also discuss a behaviour plan with your dog’s veterinarian or be referred to a behavioural specialist . This can help you to create an individual plan for your pet.
Phobias are definitely frustrating to the owner. And although many phobias cannot be completely eliminated, the severity of the phobia can be greatly reduced in many cases. With a bit of patience and understanding, your dog can start enjoying day to day life…even celebrations such as Canada Day on Parliament Hill. Good luck in all your training!
1/Veterinary Information Network: Boom Crash Opera – Dealing with Storm Phobias
2/Veterinary Partner: Fireworks Phobia