Treating Thunderstorm Phobia in Ten Not-So-Easy Steps
OK, so I keep promising to give you a practical Part 2 on this critical issue. And now that nearly every day brings thunder, lightning, high winds and heavy rains (here in South Florida, anyway), it’s not just informative — it’s timely, too.
Here’s a rehashing of my ten steps to handling storm phobia (with product reviews, too!):
1. Identify it early.
Storm phobia is a progressive behavioral disease. That means that dogs who don’t show obvious signs of distress may be subclinical patients just waiting to manifest their stress. It may take another season, or a few really bad storms, so even mild signs (hiding, for example) should not be ignored. Each successive thunderstorm season is likely to bring out ever-worsening signs of fear, so it’s time to take action … NOW!
2. Don’t listen to those who speak out against "coddling" fearful pets during a storm.
I’ve heard many pet owners explain that they don’t offer any consolation to their pets because they don’t want to reinforce the "negative behavior" brought on by a thunderstorm. But a severe thunderstorm is no time to test your dog’s mettle. Fears like this are irrational. Your dog won’t get it when you punish her for freaking out (indeed, it’ll likely make her anxiety worse).
And she won’t get worse if you "baby" her. In fact, providing a positive or distracting stimulus is more likely to calm her down and may even create lasting positive associations with storms if you start this "babying" early enough in her life. Which is why I recommend number 3 …
3. Offer treats, cuddlings, and other good stuff when storms happen.
This method is best employed before the phobia sets in — as pups. Associating loud booms with treats is never a bad thing, right? Though some avidly disagree with me, veterinary behaviorists tend to rally around offering positive stimulus when storms happen.
4. Let him hide.
Hiding (as in a cave) is a natural psychological defense for dogs. And it’s one more excellent reason to crate train!
Getting them used to a crate as pups has a tremendous influence on how comfortable they are when things scare them. Having a go-to place for relaxing or hiding away is an excellent approach, no matter what the fear.
5. Get him away from the noise … and compete with it while you’re at it.
Creating a comfy place (for the crate or elsewhere) in a room that’s enclosed (like a closet or bathroom) may help a great deal. Adding in a loud radio or white noise machine can help, too. Or how about soothing, dog-calming music? (Through a Dog’s Ear is like Mozart for dogs.) Not only does this help muffle sounds, it also means pets can avoid number 6 …
6. Electromagnetism is bad.
Though it may sound like hooey, your dog can also become sensitized to the electromagnetic radiation emitted by lightning strikes. One great way to shield your dog from these potentially fear-provoking waves is to cover his crate with a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Another method involves clothing him in a commercially available Storm Defender cape that does the same work (I’ve only seen this one, though other brands, like Thundershirt, are available). If he hides under the bed, consider slipping a layer of aluminum fold between the box-spring and mattress.
7. Desensitize him.
And now for some simple behavior modification. Sometimes it’s possible to allay storm fears by using thunderstorm sound CDs. Here’s how: Play it at a low volume while plying him with positive stimuli (like treats, pettings and other favorite things). Increase the volume slowly over a period of weeks. It really works, though I’ll admit that it works more for some than for others. (You can also find some great, free thunderstorm recordings on YouTube)
Sure, drugs sound bad. Having to resort to the pharmacy always seems like a bad thing. But some fears should not be trifled with — especially when we’re talking about a severe psychological disease that’s still worsening. Yes, some patients require drugs — if only for the first few weeks or months while their owners avidly pursue behavioral alternatives. And not all drugs result in a zonked out dog, as you might imagine. Indeed, my favorite storm therapy approach is one I prescribe even for moderate sufferers whose disease has proved to be progressive … Prozac. And it’s cheap. Way cheap.
9. Natural therapies can work … so try them early on.
For severe sufferers, it's too much to expect a simple flower essence to do all the heavy lifting, but for milder cases, Bach flower extracts (as in Rescue Remedy), lavender oil (in a diffuser is best), and/or “Dog Appeasing Pheromone” (marketed as D.A.P. in a diffuser, spray, or collar) can help. Calming collars of all varieties are out there. And though there’s little scientific evidence in their favor, there’s no reason not to try ‘em out … as long as you’re also trying everything else while you’re at it.
10. Consider seeing a board certified veterinary behaviorist.
Here’s my final recommendation: If nothing else works, your dog should not have to suffer. Seek out the advice of your veterinarian, and if you’ve gone as far as you have with him/her, consider someone with unique training in this area.
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Dr. Patty Khuly
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