By Dr. Becker
If your favorite canine friend has phobias, it means he experiences an irrational and disproportionate response to certain normal stimuli, for example, thunderstorms.
There appear to be genetic factors at work in the development of phobias. Studies show identical twins raised apart have been known to develop phobias to exactly the same stimuli.
In dogs, the herding breeds are more prone to thunderstorm phobias than other breeds.
Nurture, or environment, also contributes to phobia creation.
Negative experiences are the triggers. Your dog may have direct personal experience with a stimulus, or exposure to others (pets or people) who are fearful of the stimulus. Either or both of these circumstances can create or reinforce a phobia in your pet.
How Dogs Respond to Phobias
If your dog has a thunderstorm phobia he may try to run away or look for a place that feels safe from the storm. Then again he might stay right next to you and follow you from room to room, or he may go off somewhere to hide.
Other physical signs of a phobic reaction are panting, whining, barking and pacing.
His body may also show signs of stress, including:
- Dilated pupils
- Sweating (from the paws only)
- Rapid heartbeat
One study of dogs with thunderstorm phobia measured an over 200 percent increase in plasma cortisol levels from exposure to an audio recording of a storm.
And even though it's impossible to scientifically evaluate the emotions of your phobic dog during a thunderstorm, you can safely assume he's feeling fear or even terror.
Thunderstorm Phobias Are a Special Problem
Thunderstorm phobias are different in many ways from other types of phobias.
Unlike most other phobias, there are number of potential thunderstorm-related phobia triggers. It's not just the boom of thunder that generates a fear response in phobic dogs. Lightening, wind, rain, dark skies, changes in barometric pressure and even odors can elicit a phobic response.
Strangely, many dogs with storm phobia aren't fearful of other loud noises. And dogs who are sensitive to other loud noises aren't necessarily storm phobic. Also, storm phobic dogs often know a storm is on the way long before humans do.
The standard therapy for canine behaviors that are fear-driven includes desensitization. But thunderstorm phobia is an exception, because it's difficult to mimic all the different triggers that set off a fear response – in particular changes in barometric pressure, static electricity, and whatever scents dogs seem to notice with an impending change in the weather.
In addition, desensitization is first and foremost about either eliminating or controlling the dog's exposure to the feared stimulus. Obviously, depending on where the dog lives, it's impossible to do this with any success when you're dealing with a thunderstorm phobia.
Another problem is that desensitization has to be done in each room of the house, because the new coping skill your dog learns in the living room will be forgotten in the kitchen.
These challenges make desensitization attempts much less successful and effective when it comes to storm phobias.
Storm Phobia Often Escalates Over Time
According to Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and founder of Tufts' Animal Behavior Clinic, many owners of storm phobic dogs don't seek help for their pets until the animals are between five and nine years old.
These owners typically explain their dog has been somewhat anxious during storms from a young age, but there has been a sudden increase in anxiety traceable to a particularly severe recent storm.
Dr. Dodman thinks the precipitating event for an increased level of phobic behavior could be caused by a static electric shock the dog endures during that particular storm.
His theory is based on his observation that many storm phobic dogs – about half in his experience – try instinctively to access areas where there are electrical grounds that protect from built-up static charges. These locations can include sinks, bathtubs, shower enclosures, behind toilets, or up against metal radiators or pipes.
Also, several dog owners have reported to Dr. Dodman that they have received static electricity shocks from their dogs if they touch them during a storm. It's an established fact static electricity fields build up during storms and some animals become statically charged.
Help for Dogs with Thunderstorm Phobia
Do everything reasonably possible to limit your dog's exposure to storms. Find a safe place your dog can go to avoid all aspects of the storm. Per Dr. Dodman:
"A basement, if available, is a great place to start. The safe place should preferably have small or no windows so the storm cannot be witnessed by the dog. Even small windows should be blocked off using cardboard inserts or fitted with thick, lined curtains. Basements have the advantage of being semi-subterranean, insulated against sound by thick concrete walls and surrounding soil."
If you can't make use of a basement in this way, you can consider outfitting a room in your home with sound-proofing wallboard and appropriate window coverings.
According to Dr. Dodman, this 'safe room' should have a solid-sided crate, and leave the door open. It should also contain food, water, treats and toys. At the approach of a storm, turn on the lights in the room so any flashes of lightening that make it through the window coverings won't be too obvious.
Spend some play time with your dog in the room when it's not storming, and then see if she'll go to her safe place on her own when she senses the approach of a thunderstorm. Your dog should have 24/7 access to her safe room, even when you're not at home.
- Purchase a storm jacket for your phobic pet. There is the Storm Defender, the Anxiety Wrap, and the Thundershirt to choose from (and there may be others as well). Some of these wraps have anti-static linings; all are designed to be snug-fitting to give dogs a feeling of being swaddled that is comforting to them. All three have proved very helpful for a certain percentage of dogs with storm phobia.
You might also consider a Calming Cap.
- Ttouch is a specific massage technique that may also help anxious pets.
- Consult your holistic vet about homeopathic, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Bach Flower Remedies that could be helpful in alleviating your dog’s stress. Some products I use, always in conjunction with behavior modification:
- Ask for help. If nothing you attempt seems to help your phobic pet, I recommend consulting an animal behaviorist in your area through the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. You can also visit the Animal Behavior Society website, where you'll find a directory of Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs).