Yesterday, we talked a bit about storm phobias in dogs and compared the condition to arachnophobia in people. Today, let’s look at the role that a particular type of behavioral modification called desensitization and counter-conditioning can play in the treatment of canine storm phobias.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning involves rewarding a dog when he relaxes in the face of the triggers that usually cause anxiety. In the case of storm phobias, veterinary behaviorists or owners typically start by exposing a dog to the recorded sounds of a thunderstorm at a very low volume and intensity. The dog is praised and/or rewarded with treats when he remains relaxed, and ignored when he is anxious. Once he handles the mild, simulated storm well, the intensity is gradually increased. If the dog becomes anxious at any time, the behavior is ignored and he is reexposed to less intense stimuli so he can relax and be praised again. The process continues as slowly as necessary until the dog is (hopefully) able to handle the sounds of even a violent storm without becoming anxious.
In many cases, the dog’s ability to relax when hearing the recorded sounds of a thunderstorm transfers well to occasions when he experiences the real deal, but the degree to which this occurs is variable. I suspect treatment success depends in part upon which aspects of the storm a dog is focusing on. If it’s sound only, the training should be quite effective. However, if his primary trigger is a drop in atmospheric pressure, I’d expect it to be less so.
Even if you are not able to follow a strict desensitization and counter-conditioning protocol, you can institute a few simple rules that will discourage anxious behavior. As hard as it may be, don’t comfort your dog when he pants, paces, etc., in the face of a storm. This can actually promote the very behavior you are trying to discourage (some dogs only act anxious when their primary caregivers are present). If your dog has a "safe spot" he likes to go to, take him there, either turn off the lights or maximize their intensity (whichever works best for your dog), and play some music to mask the sounds of the storm. If your dog will allow himself to be distracted by a food puzzle or "chewie" you can give him that, but then walk away. Only pay attention to and reward your dog when he is no longer anxious.
Given the importance of desensitization and counter-conditioning in the treatment of many canine behavioral problems, I wonder if there is a way to improve its effectiveness for storm phobias, perhaps by broadening the potential triggers to which a dog is exposed during the procedure.
What is your experience? Have you found something that really works for your dog? Would you be willing to embark on a serious desensitization counter-conditioning protocol, even if it meant you had to engage in at least one training session a day for weeks, if not longer?
Dr. Jennifer Coates