Noise phobias in dogs are common problem and are difficult and frustrating to treat. A dog can develop a phobia to any sound. Common sounds include fireworks, vacuums, sirens, gunshots, and thunderstorms. Of these, thunderstorms are by far the most common.
Noise phobias can develop for several reasons. It could be something as simple as not being exposed to a certain sound during the critical socialization period (4-14 wks of age). There is also a genetic component. Some dogs, just like people, are more timid and fearful vs bold and outgoing. These dogs are going to be naturally more fearful than others, even without the occurrence of something traumatic. Many dogs develop these phobias over time. For example, a puppy gets startled by the sound of thunder, an owners sees this and goes to the dog and starts to pet him and say “it’s okay” in an attempt to calm and comfort him. While the owner’s intentions are to calm and comfort, what they end up doing is reinforcing the fear.
Noise phobias can manifest in many different ways. A mild case may involve panting, tremors and whining. A severe case can involve chewing holes through walls and aggression. It is important to note that these dogs are extremely anxious. They are having panic attacks. They are not purposely trying to destroy things. Other signs include urinating or defecating, hiding, chewing, pacing/following, panting, digging, escaping, drooling, attention seeking behaviors, excessive gas, barking, trembling, and dilated pupils.
Since thunderstorm phobias are the most common, and the most difficult to treat, I will be focusing this discussion on this specific phobia. So, why is this particular noise phobia so tough? It’s because there are a number of variables involved in a thunderstorm and some are difficult to replicate during treatment. The different components include cloud cover, changes in humidity, changes in barometric pressure, rain fall (the sound, sight, and smell of it), the flash of lightening (frequency and intensity), static electricity, and thunder (frequency and intensity). None of these occur in a vacuum and they can appear together in many different combinations and intensities. A dog may be able to handle one at a time, but the mix and match may be too much.
Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning
The proper treatment involves several steps and centers around desensitization and counter-conditioning (DCC). During the DCC program it is important to NOT expose the dog to any of the sounds/components that he is afraid of. This is another thing that makes fixing this problem so difficult. How do you control the weather? Well, obviously you cannot, so it would be best to start treatment when it is not thunderstorm season. A DCC program involves exposing the dog to each component of the thunderstorm to a degree that either does not evoke a fearful response at all (this can be difficult) or at the very least evokes less of a fearful response. Reward relaxation/no/less response with praise and a food treat. If your dog is not accepting the food treat, he is too stressed and the intensity of the stimulus needs to be decreased. Now, here is were the difficulty comes into play. How do you replicate a change in humidity, cloud cover, static electricity, and barometric pressure? You can’t. Sorry, no tricks up my sleeve for those. If someone has suggestions I’d LOVE to hear them :-).
So, we are left with thunder, lightening flash, and rain (the sight and sound of). There are CD’s with recordings of thunderstorms. These will give us the sound of thunder and rain fall and are a great place to start. Play the recording on a very low setting, barely audible, and reward calm behavior. Do not increase the volume too fast. Going too fast is the most common mistake people make. After several short sessions (3-5 minutes each) per day for a few days, begin to increase the volume. If your dog begins to react, ignore him, turn the sound off, and restart at the previous volume that he did not react to and start over. I cannot stress enough the importance of going slow. You cannot go too slow, but you can very easily go too fast.
Once the sound components have been dealt with (thunder and rain) it is time to move on to the visual side of the house, lightening and rain. A camera flash or strobe light can be used as lightening. Start in a different room and flash once. Reward as stated above. Slowly start to increase the frequency of the flashes and then the intensity (bring it closer, but never flash it right in the dog’s face). As you begin to move closer, start over with one flash, then slowly increase the number of flashes at that distance. Next is the visual component of rain. All you need for this is a window, garden hose, and a helper (human type). Have your dog sit far away from the window as someone “makes it rain,” reward calmness and gradually bring your dog closer to the window. This is not perfect because of the components that we have no control over, but it’s the best that we can do.
Once your dog has been desensitized and counter-conditioned to the individual components, it’s time to repeat the process with combinations. Start with two of the components that he reacts less to, and build on that. Switch them up and DCC to as many combos as you can. After this combine 3 things and keep building in this manner.
There are several products on the market that can help dogs with noise phobias, however, none of these are intended to be used as the sole treatment and are intended to be used in conjunction with behavior modification. In other words, there is no short cut and choosing one of these becaue it is an easy way of dealing with the problems will likely result in failure about 90% of the time.
- DAP Collars and Room Plug-Ins – DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) collars and room plug-ins can help to decrease anxiety in dogs, regardless of the cause. They should be used together and constantly, no “as needed.” The collar needs to have a tight fit, not snug, tight. It needs to be tight (just able to fit one finger under the collar) because it gets activated by body heat. Therefore, it needs to have good contact with the skin. It should also be kept dry, moisture will significantly decrease it’s effect. The room diffusers should be plugged into an outlet that is out in the open (not behind a couch) and preferably in the middle of the room. One diffuser covers an area of 600 square feet.
- Calming Caps – Calming caps are designed with a sheer mesh that covers your dogs eyes. In theory, it will make visual stimuli less stimulating. Your dog should be properly introduced to this tool before the time comes when you actually need it.
- Thunder Shirts – The exact mechanism by how this works is not certain. It is proposed that stimulation of the nervous system helps to quell anxiety. The company claims 100% satisfaction guaranteed This could also help with the static electricity component of thunders storms.
- Thunderbands - The ThunderBand is a comfort head wrap and 2-part sound dampening system for thunderstorm (and fireworks) phobic dogs.
Medicating your dog may not be an appealing idea to you, but often times medications can be a tremendous help. Stress and anxiety inhibit learning, in dogs as well as in people. Think about it, how well are you going to learn if you think your life in truly in danger? Your main concern is to escape that danger, be it real or perceived. Same goes for dogs. If anxiety can be decreased, learning can be increased. There are several types of medications that can be used.
- Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRI) and Tricyclic Anti-depressants – Medications such as Prozac (Reconcile), Zoloft, and Clomicalm will cause an increase in the serotonin levels of the brain, producing a calming effect. They also have an effect on other neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine and dopamine. This class of medication is meant to be taken for a period of months to years. The positive effects of these medications are seen after taking them daily for 4-6 weeks.
- Benzodiazepines – Medications such as Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin are anti-anxiety medications that start to work in about 30-45 minutes. These can be used on an as needed basis, but can also be used daily until the SSRI’s kick in.
- Phenothiazines – Acepromazine, or Ace for short, is a VERY commonly used drug in veterinary medicine. It only sedates. It does not have any anti-anxiety properties and is not a good choice for dogs with anxiety. It makes the owners feel better because their dog cannot display the anxious behavior. The dog’s brain is still experiencing all of the stress and anxiety that the situations brings about, but his body cannot show it. Plus, it actually heightens sensitivity to noises! This medication should also be avoided in dogs that have seizures and in Boxers, sight hounds, and giant breeds.
- Anxitane – Anxitane is not a “medication,” it is a nutraceutical for the brain (like glucosamine is for joints). It decreases the frequency of alpha waves in the visual cortex of the brain. This makes visual stimuli (rain and lightening) less stimulating. It has no side effects and does not cause sedation.
Although this can be a frustrating and time consuming problem to deal with, progress can be made. A realistic goal is one of improvement, not complete resolution. If I can get a dog to go from chewing holes through walls to only tremoring during a storm, I am happy. Please feel free to share your thoughts and stories!
Pictures courtesy of stevoarnold (lightening) and lkayama (scared dog)