Dog Phobias: It Doesn't Take Much
After a night of strong thunderstorm activity I encountered a friend while on my daily walk at sunup. "It wasn't bad enough that we had the kids in bed with us all last night," she said in explaining her haggard appearance, "but we had the dog with us, too!"
Sound familiar? A lot of folks have to deal with dogs that are afraid of thunder and other loud noises, generally referred to as “thunder phobia” (back on the block we just called it ligyrophobia). What’s more, it frequently happens that those fears create other fears, thereby compounding the problem.
For instance, a dog that is afraid of thunder storms may develop a fear of things associated with the storm; things that we don’t give a second thought to such as gusty winds, the sun going behind clouds, or the lightning-like flash on our cameras. Dogs who don’t like the sound of leaf blowers may develop a fear of the person who uses one.
You can get conflicting information on how to deal with this problem, and may try a number of possibilities through the process of elimination. But depending upon how your dog expresses those fears, you may want to seek professional help right away.
I know a couple that spent nearly $4,000 on sessions with animal behaviorists at a veterinary college. After trying everything in their bag of tricks the professionals reluctantly recommend euthanasia because Reilly turned so vicious during loud events.
He would lunge at anyone within reach if he heard thunder, sirens, car horns, and any number everyday things that made loud noises. It broke their hearts, but because an attack could occur at any moment, they feared for their safety, and that of their grandchildren, and did put him to sleep.
The one thing that just about all the experts agree on, however, is that you should not try to soothe your dog during a thunderstorm or any other loud events that frighten him. His behavior may become frantic, aggressive or destructive and experts caution that attempting to soothe him will be interpreted by the dog as rewarding that behavior.
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So, what do you do? Well, you can try distracting him by playing games that he likes or offering special treats that he only gets on rare occasions.
I wouldn't feed him the treat directly, though. It's safer to put it in his food dish or on the floor. Should a clap of thunder occur while there's a pig's ear between your fingers, you could get bitten.
Make note of where your dog goes, or tries to go, when frightening noises happen. You might be able to create a safe haven at that location.
It must be a place where the dog feels safe; not necessarily where you think he’ll feel safe. Don’t force him to go to a spot.
Another suggestion that cropped up fairly often is to play the radio, TV or stereo at a volume that will help drown out the noise of the thunder.
Personally, I'm surprised at that suggestion. Isn’t the prudent advice to unplug those appliances during an electrical storm?
If Boomer thinks thunder is a bummer, wait 'til he feels the lightning.
The stereo can otherwise be a useful tool, though. There are a number of "Sounds of Nature" type albums on the market which invariably include thunderstorms.
Try playing those softly and giving him small treats or engaging him in a favorite activity at the same time. You may be able to gradually increase the volume and eventually condition him to accept the offending noise.
There's also some science that you should keep in mind regarding loud noises.
A dog's hearing is far more sensitive than a human's, so besides the fact that a sound is louder to the dog, it also may cause some discomfort.
Just because the thunder you heard sounded distant and not loud at all, your dog is likely to have heard it louder.
He may even be able to hear thunder you can’t even hear yet.
Then there are the more obscure considerations that create gray areas among experts, most of whom agree that dogs react to certain invisible stimuli.
Things such as detecting changes in barometric pressure or the theory that electrically charged air emits high frequency sounds that dogs can hear but we can't.
If theory is truth, these can explain odd canine behavior when there seems to be no underlying reason for it.
If anyone in the house is frightened of thunder and reacts accordingly, the dog will pick up on it, which may inflame the situation. They're experts at reading body language, even subtle cues, so it would be helpful if everyone stays calm during storms or other dog-frightening events.
Thunder phobia is an issue that shouldn't be tackled alone. The prudent advice is to start with your veterinarian. There are prescription medications that may help for short periods of time, you might ask about herbal remedies that have produced positive results and there are behavior modification techniques that they can discuss with you.
Together you may work out a plan that combines a number of things, or they may eventually refer you to a board certified animal behaviorist.