Phobia’s in Dogs – Storms
I am not an expert in this field; however, I have had my share of clients who own dogs with noise phobias, obsessive compulsive orders, and weather phobias. I’m sharing what I’ve learned so that this information may possibly help you in some ways.
First, let me say that it would be irresponsible to suggest that one can properly diagnose and treat a dog for storm anxiety or any other behavioral disorder when we don’t first rule out a medical condition. ( A medical condition is not your vet putting your dog on anxiety medication that is the result of the dog’s condition).
Dogs have a heightened awareness of barometric pressure changes, static electricity buildup, lightening and wind. Because of their sensitivity to changes, some of these dogs make very good seizure alert dogs. Other dogs develop phobia either from the shelter environment, learned behaviors, or a sensativity to the above. It seems to be more prevalent in the Golden Retriever, the German Shepherd, and other Herding Dogs. Let me also say, that with phobia issues, there seems to be a correlation with Separation Anxiety.
Separation anxiety is manifested in fearful and often destructive behavior exhibited when the caregiver is absent, irrespective of the weather. So perhaps sep. anxiety lends to phobias and the phobia lends itself to traits of separation anxiety from the phobia.
Some dog owners I feel may be resistant to recognize true separation anxiety in their dog, unless the dog frequently acts fearful and overly dependent upon them much of the time. (Jean Donaldson: Dogs are from Neptune).
A second disorder that should be addressed is the obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which the dog performs odd, almost ritualistic behaviors in a driven way, or becomes obsessed with an object or body part. Obsessive compulsive disorders can be seen in tail chasing (not a good trick to teach your dog to initiate), pacing in patterns, chewing behaviors, compulsive barking, spinning or licking. (granulomas).
Just keep in mind that common sense would say that the storm-phobic dog should not show symptoms in the absence of an imminent storm, whereas the obsessive-compulsive dog will show both.
As for storms, we do not know what part of the storm frightens the dog most, but it could be something as simple as a drop in barometric pressure, or it could be the noise level, the change in the owners reaction to the storm, the darkening of the sky, or the timing of the crash of thunder.
Symptoms: Well if you have a dog with this condition, you are well aware of the symptoms. Typically you will find trembling, whining, insecurity, digging, pacing, lack of appetite, and need for comfort. Depending on your dogs level of phobia, some dogs experience actions such as scratching to the point of injury, biting crate’s creating broken teeth, chewing body parts, crashing through windows and doors and such.
Dogs learn through actions, and having multiple dogs in the house, you understand that they also learn through each other. It is important to understand this. I feel it is acceptable to keep a phobic dog and non phobic dog together, unless you start to see changes in the non phobic dog…If that is the case, you should separate…In addition, dogs feed off of each other, therefore, you need to watch for signs of negativity and adjust immediately and according.
Because I feel storm fears tend to worsen over time, (similar to reactivity issues in dogs), early intervention can and should make a difference. The longer you allow the dog to continue the behavior; the more accustomed they will be in their reaction. I also believe that multiple storms heighten the phobic dog to create other behavioral disorders as noted above. The dog simply cannot deal with the fear and it is consistently compounded by storm after storm making the dog unable to cope with just normal daily functions.
So How Do We Cope? Here are a few suggestions, but I would recommend talking to your trainer. Be aware that there are vets and individuals in our industry who are called “behaviorists” the Doggie Psychologist so to speak. All I will say on this subject is use your judgment.
Close Curtains: Block views of lighting and swaying trees and wind
Start a desensitization Program: (This is a program, not a quick fix)
This involves diverting his attention (before the storm) to a very powerfully rewarding toy, food, or game. You cannot create this overnight. These items need to already be in place for the dog to value the reward…Once in place, you start to introduce it prior to the onslaught of the storm. Once you have “lost the dog” or the dog gets to the point of no return, stop trying to continue with the reward. At this point, the reward now has negative effects. IF the dog deems the value of the reward high enough, it will divert his phobia, creating a positive result.
Exercise your dog: The most value you can give your dog is mental stimulation. The more mentally and physically stimulated your dog, the more relaxed and less stressed he will become when the phobia hits. Remember that old staying: a happy dog is a tired dog.
Watch your actions: Do not coddle, talk baby talk, bribe your dog and overly pet you dog during the storm. Be Hard Hearted and do not feel sorry for him/her. …You are rewarding negative behaviors. Instead, ask for a sit, reinforce the sit. Let the dog think about the obedience exercise over the storms effects, knowing that not performing the obedience exercise will result in negative behavior which is more significant than the storm. Use normal tones with a playful edge to them. I understand that the dog might “shake, cry, bark, whine” in the sit, but for now, let them work through the sit. Let them get over it on their own. You really can’t help them “emotionally”.
Music / Noise distraction: Play soothing music for the dog..and when the storm is not apparent, get a tape of thunderous sounds, classical music with crescendos’, battlefield guns…and start playing it in the house very very low…Remember a dogs hearing is much more sensitive than ours, so keep it low…after about 2 days or a week…depending on the dogs progression, turn it up slightly, and keep going…Get to a point where you can raise it, and lower it and raise it so they not only get used to the “sounds” but also the change in volume. After all thunder comes and goes, but a Thunder’s volume is not constant.
Human Error: Remember that the dog is naturally tuned into our actions. During times of stress, I find that they are more reactive to our body language, tone, actions, moods and would surmise that if you feel scared, the dog will react.
Work the dog: Do not allow a frightened dog to jump in you, hind behind you, climb on you, claw at you, or sit on you. Tell him down forcefully. Leash him if necessary and activate your obedience commands.
Build Confidence: Take your dog out to various places. Be creative…Go to the carnival, stay in the parking lot and train at a distance…Go to the fireworks, stay several blocks away. Go to the Lowes, doing a sit stay by the Fort Lift Machine that Beeps. Go to a Gun Range, keeping the dog in the parking lot..Again Training Sound at a Distance. Get a Cap Gun..Count off to 10, when the person fires the cap guy, Release your dog with play, tug, etc., Go to an Auto Tire Store, stand outside while they use the Air Gun…Real life training is soo important in having a well rounded dog. The more the dog is exposed, I think the more secure you will find him. It’s your job to help him overcome his fears and create added security, confidence, and independence for the dog. To actually train the dog through the distraction, speak to your trainer…These scenarios are jus to evoke a “thinking outside the box” approach to training. Dog training is not at your trainers place or in your back yard. It is everywhere.
However, don’t just let the “noise” training stop there. Expose your dog to slippery floors, moving docks, grates, metal bleachers, wobble board, teeter totters, sea saws, merry go rounds..Create stability throughout the entire animal not just through his hearing.
Build a Safe Place: I call it a storm bunker. Make it a happy environment for him and never use it for punishment. The concept is for the dog to feel safe.
Find a low lighted, quiet, and easily accessible place such as a basement, closet, bathroom. Teach our pet to relax in this ‘safe area’ and call it something like “puppies room” “go to place” etc. fill it with pillows (unless you have a shredder), favorate toys, your heavily scented blanket or nightgown, stuffed treats (dogs usually will show a lack of food/prey/play drive during a storm, but not leading up to or after). Make sure you have your noise distraction in this room as well such as a TV, Fan, Radio. It should preferably have no windows to see the storm and the noise should be sufficient enough to drown out the storm..Practice having him go to his place at first with you, and then without you…prior to storms. Once he understands the concept 100% you can introduce your storm.
Dodman’s Multimodal Approach
In his books and in his practice), Dr. Nicholas Dodman argues for attacking the problem on many fronts: using psychoactive medications, increasing daily exercise, certain changes in diet, practicing obedience, and being unceasingly upbeat and authoritative during storms, and showing no sympathy toward a dog when it is pathetically whining with fear. I suspect that The Dog Who Loved Too Much covers the topic of storm anxiety in greater detail than does Dogs Behaving Badly
Medication and Vet:
Moreover, most veterinarians are not as focused on the treatment of behavioral disorders as they might be. I have found from my experience that when a behavioral problem is discussed, puppy Prozac is often recommended. This is not the case with some vets, but you may incur this theory. This is strictly an individual choice. My personal thought is that I will try to do everything in my power to assist my dog before medications and sedation is introduced. Yet, there are times when for the dogs safety, this is the best course of action.
The caregiver of a storm-phobic dog faces substantial challenges. Many a once-loved dog has been discarded after its damaging home or furniture–and typically itself–after storm-related terror episodes. Many people who have not lived with a phobic dog will be unsympathetic, as they minimize the distress that a storm phobia imposes upon the entire household. Even some veterinarians may seem blasé about your situation.
One has to wonder that since many rescue dogs come to new homes with these types of phobia’s, is that not the reason they were turned into the shelter in the first place. If that is the case, to further wonder if by constantly rehoming them, if it does not add to their condition.
I give a great deal of credit to owners of these Phobic dog’s. It takes a great deal of patience, tough love, training, and intervention and you will probably never cure the animals of its fears, but you can help it to understand and cope with them.