I live in Southern California. We don’t have thunder. We have earthquakes. In fact, we just had one 5 minutes ago. It was a 5.9. I’m still shaking. My point is, while I can tell you all about how to handle earthquakes (freeze and pray), thunderstorm phobia is really not my area of expertise.
Fortunately for all of you, as we stand on the cusp of thunder season (so I hear), I have the pleasure of having guest blogger and trainer extraordinaire Eric Goebelbecker from Dog Spelled Forward, one of my favorite dog blogs, to talk about this issue.
Eric and his family live in New Jersey, where they have plenty of thunderstorms. I “met” Eric through the Brody Awards earlier this year, then later in person at BlogPaws in Columbus. I’m so pleased to have him here today and I hope you all enjoy having a trainer perspective on a very common problem!
About two years ago, after she was already a mature dog, Caffeine started displaying thunderstorm phobia. It came out of nowhere — and is one of the most frustrating problems I have ever had to deal with in my own dogs. She was terrified, and nothing I could do would really help.
She would pace the ground floor of our home panting and salivating heavily and then she would whine not just when thunder sounded, but with each lightning flash and when wind buffeted against the house.
Thunderstorm phobia is the most frequently diagnosed sound phobia in dogs. It often accompanies fears of wind and rain (like my dog) and can also present with a fear of other sounds like airplanes, fireworks, and backfiring cars. Phobic dogs typically pace, whine, shake, salivate and seek attention from their humans.
In 2005 two researchers published the results of a study performed on thunderstorm phobic dogs in their homes. They measured a biological response to the storm sounds:
“the dogs exhibited classic signs of fear (i.e., pacing, whining, hiding), their cortisol levels increased 207%, and these levels did not return to baseline within 40 min.”
Cortisol is a hormone that the adrenal gland releases in response to stress. Thunderstorm phobia is a real and measurable fear response.
There is no real clear cause for this phobia. Most of the literature states that it often starts before the age of one but as I stated earlier, I first saw it in Caffeine was she was an adult (and we brought her home as a very young puppy, so I know her history.)
In a seminar I attended last year, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Director of the Animal Behavior Department of Clinical Sciences Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, said that 40% of the dogs that suffer from thunderstorm phobia also suffer from separation anxiety, and that herding and large breed dogs are more susceptible to it.
So what can we do to help our dogs?
First, a note about something you may have heard not to do. You may have heard that you should not comfort your dog because it will make the behavior worse. This is wrong. You cannot reinforce a fearful (or any other emotional) response. If someone comforts you when you are sad or afraid, does it make you more apt to feel that way? As a matter of fact, in the study I cited above the researchers measured how the dogs responded to being comforted:
“There were no effects of the owners’ behavior or the quality of the dog-owner relationship on the dogs’ HPA or behavioral reactivity.”
“Owners’ mood (e.g. depression, anger) affected their behavioral response towards their dogs.”
Which means how we feel is part of the landscape. If we feel nervous or tense, we will act differently toward our dogs. So my advice is this: if comforting your dog makes you feel better, go ahead!
Before I go on to practical measures we can take, there’s one last tidbit from the study worth quoting:
“However, the presence of other dogs in the household was linked to less pronounced reactivity and more rapid recovery of the dog’s HPA response.”
I’m not suggesting you get another dog to fix a problem in another (as matter of fact, don’t!), but I find that pretty interesting.
The most basic measure you can take is to reduce your dog’s exposure to the sights and sounds from the storm. This may seem obvious because, well, it is. Try to create a safe place, maybe in a basement if you have one, and take steps to reduce the lightning and thunder exposure. Extra-heavy drapes and maybe even some sound-deadening insulation or wall treatments and heavy carpets should help.
Spend some happy time in there before storms occur and then take your dog there when they do. The reduced noise and sight, along with the positive association you build in advance, will help.
I have had some success with Caffeine using a product called the Thundershirt. It’s a jacket that provides constant but gentle pressure around the dog’s abdomen, much like being hugged. I was very skeptical of this concept (a similar product, called the “anxiety wrap” has been around for a while) but then when I read Dr. Temple Grandin talking about pressure being soothing and heard Dr. Dodman mention it too, I decided to give it a shot.
I can’t say that the jacket completely eliminated Caffeine’s anxiety, but it has definitely resulted in less pacing, no more salivation, and she will often just lie down during a storm.
Another option is behavior modification using counter-conditioning and desensitization. This is done by playing recordings of storm noise and pairing the experience with treats. By very gradually increasing the volume and the frequency of the sounds, the fear often decreases.
Conceptually this is a pretty simple process, but it can be very difficult to do correctly (many people try to move the next level of intensity too quickly) and some dogs don’t generalize the sound of recordings to a “real” storm.
One study combined this therapy with medication and documented some positive results. As the first study I cited shows us, this is a very real problem — and in some cases medication may be a way to help your dog better cope with storms. I understand that many people are reluctant to discuss medication for behavior issues, but this is a problem that can have a big impact on quality of life.
If your dog is having a very tough time with storms, it’s worth a visit to your vet to discuss your options. Especially if you live in an area that has a busy thunderstorm season!
Personally I am very skeptical of many of the “natural” and “holistic” anxiety treatments out there and I am not alone. As far as I am concerned, save the money you would spend on them and visit your veterinarian first.
Thunderstorm phobia is very difficult problem, but there are some simple and some not-so-simple steps you can take to diminish the problem. Do you have a thunderstorm phobic dog? Have you tried something that worked? How about things that have not? Tell me about it in the comments.