Dear Porky & Buddy,
My dog Rosie never used to pay any attention to thunderstorms (or any other loud noises for that matter). But suddenly this year she is starting to act anxious and whiney when a storm is coming and when it actually thunders she acts terribly upset. Nothing seems to calm her. Why would this happen now when it has never been a problem before? And what can I do to help?
Thunder and other loud, unexpected sounds often leave dogs frightened and wanting to either hide or flee to a safer place. These types of fears are more common with the herding breeds and with older dogs, and may develop even if your dog has had no traumatic experiences associated with the sound. Many fear-related problems can be successfully resolved. Ignoring it probably won’t help.
* There are some things you should definitely not do. Do not attempt to reassure Rosie when she is afraid. This may only reinforce her fearful behavior. If you pet her, soothe her, or give treats to her when she’s behaving fearfully, she may interpret this as a reward for her fearful behavior. Instead, try to behave normally, as if you don’t notice her fearfulness. And stay calm yourself. If you jump every time you hear thunder she will pick up on your anxiety. Do not put her in a crate to prevent her from being destructive during a thunderstorm. She’ll still be fearful when she’s in the crate and may injure herself while attempting to get out. Do not punish her for being afraid. Punishment will only make her more fearful. Do not try to force her to experience or be close to the sound that frightens her. For example, making her stay outside by herself during a storm may cause her to bolt and put herself in danger in her efforts to escape
The most common behavior problems associated with fear of loud noises are destruction and escaping. When your dog becomes frightened, she tries to reduce her fear. She may try to escape to a place where the sounds of thunder are less intense. If she feels less afraid by leaving the yard or going into a certain room or area of the house, then the escape or destructive behavior is reinforced because it successfully lessens her fear.
There are two basic approaches to helping Rosie overcome this new fear. You can try to create a safe place for her to go to when she hears the noises that frighten her. But remember, this must be a safe location from her perspective, not yours. Notice where she goes (or tries to go) when she’s frightened. If possible, give her access to that place. If she’s trying to get under your bed, give her access to your bedroom. If she goes into the bathroom and hides in the tub, let her do that.
Encourage her to go there when you’re home and the thunder or other noise occurs. Consider using a fan or radio near the spot to help block out the sound. Feed her in that location and help your dog associate that spot with other “good things” happening to her there. But remember that she must be able to come and go from this location freely. Confining her in the safe place when she doesn’t want to be there will only cause more problems.
The safe place approach may work with some dogs, but not all. Some dogs are motivated to move and be active when frightened and hiding out won’t help them. Instead, you can try to engage Rosie in a fun activity that captures her attention and distracts her from behaving fearfully. This method works best when she is just beginning to get anxious. Start when she first starts to act anxious but is not yet showing a lot of fearful behavior. Many dogs seem to be able to sense when a storm is coming and their behavior changes and is sort of watchful. Immediately try to interest her in doing something that she really enjoys. Get out the tennis ball and play or practice some commands that she knows. Reward her with praise and treats for paying attention to the game or the commands.
As the storm or other noise builds, you may not be able to keep her attention on the activity, but it might delay the start of the fearful behavior for longer and longer each time you do it. If you can’t keep her attention and she begins acting fearfully, stop the process. If you continue, you may inadvertently reinforce her fearful behavior. Eventually, you might get her to the point that she associates thunder with play time and treats!
If these strategies don’t help, there are behavior modification techniques that are often successful in reducing fears and phobias. They are called “counter-conditioning” and “desensitization.” They are time-consuming and require a lot of commitment on your part and there is no room to explain them in this column, but you can find a very good explanation at http://www.aspcabehavior.org/articles/9/Fear-of-Noises.aspx.
If all else fails, there is medication available which can help reduce your dog’s anxiety levels for short time periods. Remember that your veterinarian is the only person who is qualified and licensed to prescribe medication for Rosie. Don’t attempt to give her any over-the-counter or prescription medication without consulting your veterinarian.
Good luck with Rosie. Maybe in time she will become a thunderstorm lover. Or at the very least she will find them boring.
Speaking of thunderstorms, the 11th Annual Chasing & Fetching Balls (a/k/a Golf) Tournament is on Friday, July 22nd starting at 9 am, at Greenview Country Club in West Monroe. Captain and Crew with lunch, beverages on the course, raffles, games, prizes, a chicken barbecue dinner and a fabulous auction. For more details and to sign up go to www.oswegohumane.org. We promise there will be no thunderstorms that day.
The Oswego County Humane Society provides spay/neuter assistance, information and referral, adoption assistance to pet owners, humane education programs, foster care and adoption for pets in urgent need, assistance with lost and found pets. Our administrative offices and spay/neuter clinic are located at 265 West First Street, Oswego, New York. Check our web site at www.oswegohumane.org or call (315) 207-1070 for more information or to be placed on our mailing list for our newsletter.