by Jane Lipson
Recently, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture on Noise and Storm Phobia in Animals presented by Dr. Terry Marie Curtis, DVM. She is a professor at the University of Florida’s School of Veterinary Sciences, specializing in animal behavior. Although I certainly am no expert on the issues, I’d like to share some of the valuable insights I gained from her talk.
While the signs of storm and separation anxiety in dogs may be quite obvious (i.e. hiding, ripping up furniture, walls and rugs), other times it is not. Some of the signs to look for in less obvious cases are a dog with his or her ears back, or one who is yawning, panting or licking his or her lips excessively.
Dr. Curtis said that most fears are learned, and as such, can be unlearned through retraining and desensitization. She points out that there is a difference between normal fear versus a phobia. Normal fear is a reasonable reaction to a particular stimulus. For instance, a chair is knocked over and the dog reacts by running or being startled. That is a normal, rational reaction. A phobia is persistent, consistent and not rational.
Oftentimes, the best way to overcome a phobia is to desensitize the dog. In order to do that, we must:
- First identify the stimuli and find all noises that evoke fear.
- Find a way to control the intensity of the exposure to the noise with something like a CD or DVD with the noise on it.
- Use a low gradient of stimuli, gradually increasing the intensity as the dog becomes more comfortable.
It is recommended that treatment be given in the off-season if possible. Work on “thunderphobia” during dry season so the intensity of the exposure can be controlled.
In order to help the dog overcome the phobia, we need to reteach the response to the stimulus. Teach him to sit, stay or settle instead of reacting in his usual manner. He can’t tear apart the house AND sit at the same time. In other words, teach him a competing behavior.
How do we do this? We retrain with rewards (give treats, treats, treats!). Start with a low intensity of the stimulus and lots of treats. Keep exposing the dog to the same low intensity until he can relax at that level. He’ll need to be exposed for as long as it takes for him to relax. Don’t forget the treats!
Once he’s comfortable at the lowest level, gradually increase the intensity of the stimulus until he’s able to relax at the highest intensity.
You’ll know when your “fur-kid” is relaxed when you see his ears forward, his body and face loose, and his attention is focused on you when he hears the stimulus.
Sometimes treatment can be simple, for example:
- If it’s storm phobia, bring him inside.
- Provide “white noise” or TV and radio.
- Try to be present during the storm if this calms him.
Provide a safe hiding place such as a bathtub, laundry basket, closet, crate.
Medication is often an effective treatment:
- Anxiolytic Medications like Prozac which should be given daily for the length of storm season. It can take Prozac as long as 6 weeks to work, so it might be a good idea to start treatment before storm season begins (perhaps in April).
Fast acting drugs such as Valium and Xanax that work to get the dog through storm season NOW, rather than a daily dose.
Non-traditional treatment might work:
- Anxiety wrap.
- DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) which comes in different forms: a diffuser, a spray or a collar.
- Melatonin. Check with your vet for an appropriate dose.
- Storm Defender Cape. This is a metal lined cape that the dog wears to discharge static buildup. It does not always work, but is effective with many dogs.
- In severe cases, a consultation with a canine behaviorist might be necessary.
In summary, a multi-pronged approach to the problem may work best. Combining behavior modification through desensitization and counter-conditioning, relaxation exercises and classical conditioning (thunder = treat!) along with medication may go a long way to calming an anxious dog.
Remember to start treatment as early as possible, to begin behavior modification in the off-season, and to try to make storms fun with playtime and treats.