I promised someone some info on dealing with fear of thunderstorms quite some time ago and so when I finally got my act together. I thought I'd make it a posting in Paws for Thought. I hope some of you find it useful.
Why does it occur?
Dr Nancy Dreschel, a vet who conducted a study into storm anxiety in dogs identified that between 15% to 30% of dogs are affected by fear of thunderstorms. Interestingly in the study Dr Dreschel tested phobic dogs with listening to just a CD of thunderstorms and measuring their cortisol levels. With just the CDs phobic dog's cortisol levels increased by up to 200%. To put this into perspective a 40% increase in children's cortisol levels is considering a big increase. Cortisol is a hormone that is essential to proper body function. It is produced by the adrenal cortex in the adrenal gland and is one of the primary factors in the body’s stress response. So much so that it is often referred to as the stress hormone because it raises the blood pressure during times of stress - in other words not something you want a lot of, or high levels of for long period of times.
The obvious answer to why some dogs fear thunderstorms is the sound of the thunder however there are a lot of other events that happen before and during storms including lightning, dark skies, wind, rain, sudden atmospheric changes (for instance in barometric or air pressure and static electric fields) and even smells. For some dogs it seems that the noise is the cause of the fear but for many others it appears to be combination of all these factors (and possibly more). This might go at least some way to explaining why desensitising a dog to the sound of Thunder using CDs etc does not often appear to solve the issue - it is but one factor.
Why does a particular dog develop a fear (or in extreme cases a phobia) of thunderstorms? Many factors come into play here. Fear may well be learnt. For instance a dog or puppy may have received a static electric shock to the nose or was frightened by an overhead clap of thunder during a storm. From then on a coming storm may be associated with pain or shock. The anticipation then can become worse than the actual event.
What are the signs?
* not eating
* dilated pupils
* vocalizing (barking or growling)
* not listening to commands
* not being able to settle - moving from place to place like trying to find a safe spot
* relentlessly seeking attention
* destruction, which migh include:
* tearing up furniture
* breaking windowns
* clawing doors and fences
* causing themselves harm (licking, chewing, biting at themselves)
Are some breeds more likely to have it than others?
A July/Aug 2001 article in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association talks about an internet survey of owners of storm-phobic dogs. Sporting and working dogs, including herding dogs and hounds, seemed to be more likely to develop a storm phobia than other dogs. The study suggested that genetics may play a part in this, with for instance herding dogs being bred to react quickly to stimuli but repress (not respond to) their strong predatory drive - which in itself creates stress. They also however identified that rescue dogs (dogs adopted from shelters or rescue organisations) also appeared more likely to develop storm phobias. They suggested that this may be because they do not feel safe and secure, because of a lack of exposure to a wide variety of situations or negative early life experiences.
Link between anxiety and dog bites - another reason to take this seriously
In 2007 researchers from the Behaviour Clinic of the Matthew J Ryan Vet Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania did some research into why the majority of dog bites are to children. They studied dog bites covering a three year period and ended up with 103 dogs in the study. The reason why this is mentioned under this topic is that a spin off of their research was the finding that an amazing 77% of the dogs that had bitten children had also displayed some form of anxiety, such as inappropriate attention seeking behvariuos, significant noise or thunderstorm anxiety, separation anxiety of generalised anxiety. A compelling reason to take anxiety seriously and treat it.
Can it be treated?
There is no guarantee that fear of thunderstorms can be totally resolved (particularly if it has gotten to the point of a phobia - which only a vet can diagnose). However in most cases the fear can be effectively managed. How effectively depends on the severity of the fear, how long the dog has hadit, whether it is ongoing or unpredictable and the amount of time and effort that you as the owner are willing to commit to addressing the issue.
Approaches to dealing with the issue
Research came up with a range of options, some of which might be worth a try on their own or in combination. But if your dog is showing more than just a little discomfort with storms please speak to your vet and/or a veterinary behaviourist.
* Wraps and shirts - I've heard great things about these - particulary about the new Thundershirt.
- TTouch wraps – part of the Tellington Touch (TTouch) toolbox this approach uses ACE or elastic bandages to provide light to moderate contact in a calming and centering way. Believe it – I’ve seen it in action and it works for dogs with different issues.
To find out how to use them check out:
- "Storm Defender" cape for storm phobic dogs. This cape was designed with an anti-static lining to prevent dogs from acquiring a static charge during a storm. It was reported to be getting up to 70% success and then someone decided to test whether the anti-static lining made the difference. Some dogs were duly provided a cape with the anti-static lining and others without. They were suprised to find that they got the same 70% success rate reported regardless of which cape was worn ..... mmmm .... more research required here perhaps. Check out the cape at http://www.stormdefender.com/
- Anxiety Wrap does much the same as the wraps and appears to have been one of the earlier options on the market for those who didn’t want their dogs to wear elastic bandages or tshirts (although you generally don’t have to use them in public. For more info check out http://www.anxietywrap.com/
- Thundershirt. A pressure wrap that applies gentle, constant pressure on a dog's torso. It appears that this pressure has a calming effect on the nervous system. Easy to fit and comes in multiple sizes. An ideal addition to a behaviour modification program. Check it out at http://www.thundershirt.com/ – it’s the one I would recommend
Oh and a note – I’ve seen dogs totally unable to cope with wraps but settle immediately in stressful situations with a Thundershirt – and vice versa. It seems our dogs are individuals with individual needs and preferences too.
* Create a safe place (inside) or a safe house (outside). When scared by sounds that they can't orient to, dogs often seem to prefer small enclosed areas (and many dogs have been known to choose the bathtub or the shower base for this purpose). This might be a crate or somewhere else your dog can go and feel safe during a storm (remember though that it has to be somewhere they feel safe - not just where you know they are safe. Sometimes making a real hidey hole with a cover and dark spot can make the difference to a spots attractiveness. Sometimes having more than one safe spot on offer helps.
And in the vein of perhaps static being part of the issue I came across the following interesting suggestion. Put a light spray conditioner (dog one of course) onto your dog, rub it in and then put your dog in a crate (to which they have been previously introduced and are happy to enter). Put two layers of aluminium foil ove the crate and cover with towels or blankets so that the space looks like a cave. Not something I'd probably try straight off - but if your dog suffers then you're probably going to be willing to try anything. And if so - you don't need a crate to create a cave.
* Crate training - Covered crates seem to work best. If you have an open wire crate drape a blanket or sheet over it. However during storms do not close the crate door - as losing the ability to escape can make the fear worse
* If possible keep the windows and curtains closed.
* Consider providing escape routes - a doggy door to get into a house or garage/shed.
* Distraction. This method works best if your dog is just starting to show any reaction to a storm. Engage them in a game or some other activity that is fun and rewarding. Lots of rewards and attention while playing should help distract him from the storm that had piqued his interest. Some people though have tried making the approach of a storm into a super special play time with their dogs - and while at first got very little reaction from their dog, found that the fear lessened over time and even that the dog would come looking for the special time at the first signs (or before the humans got any signs) of a storm. I'd suggest that these were dogs with fear of storms though rather than a phobia.
* Sound therapy - CDs that play music for dogs are available. One of which is Through a Dog's Ear. Music to Calm Your Canine Companion. This is most effective if you play the music well before storms and at a time when the dog is already calm, peaceful and relaxed (maybe during massage and petting time or any other chill out time such as calmly chewing on a stuffed kong). If this is done consistently then the dog will eventually associate the music with the feeling of calm. Once this relationship is firmly established then you can start the music an hour or two before the storm (or as far ahead of a storm hitting as you can) and continue to play the music after the storm. It doesn't have to be loud to be effective but particular types of music will calm, while others have the opposite action. For more info on this particular CD check out http://www.throughadogsear.com/
* Controlling your own reactions. If a storm makes you nervous then your dog may well be feeding off your fear. Ignore the storm as best you can and carry on with your normal routine.
* Alternative therapies
- Bach Flower Essences:
- Add Rescue Remedy or Natures' Remedy to the dog's water on days when storms are forecast or you can put drops (approx 4) on the dog's tongue or side of the mouth. Dose may be repeated 4 - 5 times an hour.
- Use Rock Rose specifically for the terror when storms are actually occuring. Do this by placing drops on the tongue or mixing with purified water and misting in the dog's face.
- Malatonin - may be more effective in some dogs than Rescue Remedy.
- Other homeopathic remedies - seek professional advice on dosage and handling:
- Phosphorus HPUS 30C
- Aconitum Napellus 30C
- Aromatherapy - lavender for instance
* Pheromone therapy - Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) which is an artificial version of the pheromone produced between the mammary glands of a lactating bitch. It is species-specific (so dogs will only react to the dog pheromone) and has no detectable odour. It works to stop or prevent fear and relieve stressful situations. You can buy it in Australia as a plug in. Follow the instructions rather than just plugging in before or during storms.
* Masking the noise. Some pet owners report that having soothing music or a television on high volume to mask the storm noises sometimes help. The use of 'white noise' such as running a fan or air conditioner has also been used.
* Accupuncture/Acupressure - may be worth checking out with your vet or behaviourist.
* Increase vigorous exercise - Your dog should receive vigorous exercise every day (depending on age and health status). Increasing the amount of exercise given on a day that a storm is due may help tire the animal, both mentally and physically, and may make him less reactive to the noise. It can also have the effect of raising the natural seratonin levels which can act as a sedative.
Note also that some dogs just seem better able to cope if they are moving and if this is the case for your dog then any level of restraint or even containment may increase their stress levels and make things worse not better.
* Behaviour modification (aspects of which relate to some of the other dot points)
- Counter-conditioning (recommended my many as the first step - usually effective in mild to moderate cases)
Your aim is to associate the coming storm with something he loves so that from now on his response to an oncoming storm becomes 'oh yay' rather than 'no way!' So you might have an extra special treat, toy, game or whatever (something that is absolutely top value to him) and he only gets it just prior to and during a thunderstorm. After a while the dog comes to associate the oncoming storm with his favourite thing happening.
In this process your dog is exposed to what they fear or react to at very low levels which are gradually increased as the dog learns to be calm at each level. Of course this can be really difficult with something from nature you can't control like thunder but there are things that have worked (at least to some level) for people and their dogs.
Ideally you don't want the dog to experience the fearful thing at full blast during the desensitisation process so this is an approach that is best done before storm season starts.
One way to desensitise a dog to thunderstorms might be to:
- Obtain a CD of a storm in action (or tape record one yourself but commercial products tend to work better due to sound quality). Play the recording at normal volume to see if you get a fear response (even a lessened one than the real thunderstorm is something that you can work with - as each small candle you blow out means that fear can lessen.). If not try a different recording before giving up. Some people have also added darkened rooms and strobing lights to the CD to get a response - but not something I'd recommend without professional assistance. If you get an big response to even the lowest volume - definitely seek assistance.
- At another time play the recording a a volume so low that your dog is aware of the sound but does not show any fearful response. If unsure start at the lowest level possible on your machine. Now engage your dog in some activity they enjoy. A training session with treats. A game. Massage and happy time or whatever. Even give them a chewtoy or feed them their meal. You want to stop the session before any signs of fear occur but you also want to aim for a session of about 20 minutes.
- If your dog didn't show any fear response for session 1 then turn up the volume just slightly and repeat. Continue with each session if things go well.
- If your dog showed a response then decrease the volume and increase the pleasure of the activity - and if that doesn't work then seek professional help.
- If you're not sure whether your dog reacted or not then repeat the next session at the same level of volume before considering moving on.
- When your dog doesn't show a reaction when the CD is played at loud volume then try it with you in other rooms for short periods, then with the dog alone for short periods and eventually when you've actually left the house (but again only for short periods).
- Sessions 1 or more times a day are often recommended and every day until the dog shows no fear reaction to the CD at full blast for short periods when you're not there (use a timer for the CD and video-camera to see what happens). Then sessions can be topped, up maybe even weekly before and during storm season and depending on severity maybe for life. And during an actual storm you use the same activities and rewards that you've been training.
* Medication. Your vet may prescribe medications - and in many cases it might be needed, but it is also not usually prescribed without other interventions such as some of those listed here. Please see a vet and/or veterinary behaviourist if your dog has a thunderstorm or noise phobia - life must be hell for them but also remember what appears to be an increased risk of dog bites from dogs with such fears.
* Make sure that your dog is clearly identified just in case they do escape - name tags, properly fitted collar, microchip etc.
* Calm reassurance. Here people are split:
- Do not cuddle and reassure them because:
- this rewards their fearful behavour or
- convinces them that there was something to worry about in the first place.
- Or the one that increasingly makes more sense to me. Be neutral. Allow the dog to enter your space and seek contact etc but do not interact or push away. After all if you've ever been really afraid of something you would know that being shunned or feeling like there was no one to turn to makes it worse - why would it be any different for our dogs?
* TTouch and it's spin offs
There is so much here that seems to help dogs in ways we really don’t understand that I would certainly recommend people exploring it – and not by just reading books or watching videos but you only get a real feel for it by attending a workshop… more info on TTouch and opportunities to learn more to come over the next month or so.
What not to do
* Fear is a powerful emotion and cannot be helped by yelling at, punishing or restraining a terrified dog. These actions will only serve to increase his fears and possibly include you in them.
* Leave fear untreated - as it usually escalates rather than getting better.
Other interesting things to note
* A Penn State University study measuring cortisol levels (a stress hormone) in storm phobic dogs seemed to indicate that dogs in multiple dogs households were less fearful than those in one dog households.
How to avoid your puppy developing this fear
There are no guarantees but there are some things that a new puppy owner can do to minimise the likelihood of their dog developing fear of thunderstorms and they include:
- Using a CD of loud noises and storm noises and playing them for your puppy using the techniques described under behaviour modification above.
- Not reacting to storms yourself and when your pup checks in just act normally and keep doing what you’re doing or engage them in something fun.
Or you might be lucky as I was with my Merlin. He was born and spent his formative 8 weeks with his mum and litter mates in the Hunter region during thunderstorm season – and his mum didn’t react and so the pups seem to be chilled about loud and startling noises generally. As for Merlin he’s so chilled that when some smart alec teenagers threw firecrackers immediately behind him when we were out walking when he was about a year old – I jumped he just turned and checked them out. They ran : )
* Why do dogs bite children? Blog by Eric Goebelbecker - www.dogstardaily.com/blogs/why-do-dogs-bite-children
* Not every cape has (or needs) a silver lining. Blog by Dr Nicholas H. Dodman - www.dogstardaily.com/
* Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs - http://dog-training.suite101.com/article.cfm/thunderstorm_phobia_in_dogs
* Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs: Helping the Dog Who is Afraid of Storms -
* Tipsheet: Fear of Thunder - www.paw-rescue.org/PAW/PETTIPS/DogTip_FearOfThunder.php
* Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs. Advice by Patricia McConnell - www.patriciamcconnell.com/thunderstorm-phobia-in-dogs.html
* Dogs and Thunderstorm Phobia -
* Storm and Noise Phobias - www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=2+2085&aid=2545
* Thunderstorm Phobia - www.grassmere-animal-hospital.com/thunderstormphobia.thm
* How to Help Your Dog Overcome Fear of Thunderstorms, Fireworks and Other Noises -
* Pet Thunder Phobia aka Noise Phobia - www.ask.animals.com/2008/08/25/pet-thunder-aka-noise-phobia/
* How Can I Help My Dog Weather Thunderstorm Phobia? - www.rps.psu.edu/probing/thunder.html
Nearly one year old Brumby is looking for a lovely new family.