Fear of Thunderstorms
Ever see a wild dog having a meltdown during a thunderstorm?
By Margot B. Schwag, VMD
** Permission of author is required for use of this article.**
Neither have I. Fear of thunderstorms does not occur in the wild, no phobias do. Why? Because humans are not there to screw dogs up.
Seriously, as a puppy grows up in the wild, they learn through imitation. Should they hear a loud noise, such as a clap of thunder, they react-run back to their den- then look about. The adults, having experienced loud sounds in the past with no consequences, continue doing whatever it was that they were doing. As a result, the pup realizes that the noise was nothing to be fearful of and comes back out to play.
The domesticated pup/adult, hears a clap of thunder and runs to us. We hug them and tell them it’s ok. What does the dog hear? You poor thing, yes you have good reason to be afraid, that sound was so horrible, it’s ok to be afraid! I.e. we have reinforced the dog’s fears, rather than demonstrate to them that there never was anything to be fearful of.
The correct response when a pup is apprehensive over anything is to ignore him. Instead calmly go about doing your routine. If you’re folding laundry, keep doing it. If you must, sit down and read the paper or watch TV. Make the pet lay at your feet. Do not try to reassure them “it’s ok”. Instead, scold them and tell them to stop being so silly. Better yet, give then a job-do some obedience training, give them a peanut butter kong, play ball, etc. Be very upbeat and happy and reward your dog’s confident behavior.
For those pets that are already terrified, purchase a CD of thunderstorms. Then each day, all day, play the CD in repeat mode. Start the CD at a barely audible level that the dog does not react to. Each day, turn up the volume one decibel at a time. Hopefully, the dog becomes acclimated to the “noise” and is no longer afraid.
For the dogs that are too far-gone, just say yes to drugs, anti-anxiety medications that can reduce the pet’s level of anxiety to loud sounds, without making them stuporous. It is best to give the meds while the animal is still calm. The current recommendation is to medicate if there is a greater that 50:50 chance of a storm.
While this article refers to the “fear of thunderstorms”, the lessons apply to anything that your dog responds inappropriately to i.e. other dogs, strangers, children, mailboxes, etc. In addition, fears are often contagious from one animal to another, as well as from people to dogs.
Remember, never reward fearful behavior!
© 2004 Margot B. Schwag, VMD. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint contact author at Landisville Animal Hospital, 3035 Harrisburg Pike, Landisville, PA 17538