All it takes is 1 negative experience for a pet to develop a phobia and no matter how hard we try we may never be able to protect them from this occurrence. With other factors involved, such as genetics and the pet’s environment, the possibility of a phobia developing can be increased especially related to elements we have no control over, such as thunderstorms.
Developing a phobia will result in an irrational and disproportionate response to what should be a normal stimulus, causing fear, panic and increased signs of stress are often noticed. These include panting, drooling, increased heart rate, dilated pupils, whining, pacing, trembling, loss of house training, destructive behaviour or barking. Though it’s equally possible that they retract into themselves, often seeking a “safe place” to hide, somewhere in the house, by your side or another location, often resulting in runaway dogs or self-inflicted injuries when trying to escape the fearful stimulus.
What makes thunder or storm phobias that much harder to manage is that the trigger is not only the loud bang of the thunder itself. Dogs become conditioned to all the stimuli associated with a storm and can become fearful of any or all of these: changes in atmospheric pressure, wind changes, darkening skies, lightening, rain or changing smells. Being so attuned to their environment, dogs will often become fearful long before humans even realise a storm is brewing, making it quite hard to address the fear that they feel. Calling in a qualified behaviourist is your best bet to desensitise your dog. Success rates can be low due to the multiple triggers that result in the fear response, most of which one is unable to replicate, but your best bet is to get them in as soon as a phobia begins to develop. The longer it is left, the harder it is to address. The Pet Food Industry Association of Southern Africa (PFI) has also compiled the below list of coping methods to try and make storms a little more manageable.
Prevention really is better than cure, so if you’re able to create a positive association with thunderstorms from an early age, and continue the practice into adulthood, you’ll hopefully avoid the phobia developing completely. Even better is planning to get your young puppy during the stormy season so that they can be exposed from a young age and at a time when they are generally less fearful of new stimuli. When you see storms brewing, from as young an age as possible, start to do positive activities with your dog from the moment you notice signs of a storm right the way through the storm – feed treats, play games, give him a chew toy etc.
Prepare a safe area for your dog:
You may already be aware of a room or area that your dog likes to retreat to when a storm hits, but if not, creating a safe spot for him will help him cope when he’s feeling anxious. Spend time in this spot when skies are clear. Play, do some basic training exercises (using positive reinforcement only), offer a chew toy or treat to make positive associations with the area. When a storm begins to form sit with him in the safe spot and play comforting music to drown out the storm noises. He should be able to access this safe area even when you are not home and be allowed to come and go from it freely.
Use coping mechanisms:
Various forms of “storm jackets” are available that are wrapped tightly around your dog and offer a sense of comfort during a storm as well as prevent static build up, which can worsen the negative association of a storm.
Using TTouch on your dog may prove effective in alleviating stress. It is a respectful type of massage technique that can be learned from qualified practitioners.
For severe cases talk to your vet about administering calming medication. Use of medication can also aid in behaviour modification, so be sure to discuss this with the qualified behaviourist as well.
Do not scold or punish fearful behaviour as it will only make the negative associations worse, deepening the panic your dog experiences. And by all means, reward calm behaviour that you want to encourage.