Help your dog overcome Thunder phobia

The heavens finally have graced Durango with rain, always a welcome event in the Southwest. But when you’re a dog trainer, thunder and lightning mean the phone is going to start ringing off the hook with desperate dog owners looking for help with their thunder-phobic dogs.

Nine years ago, I began my own personal fight against thunder phobia with my dog Kylie, then just 6 months old. Her first experience with a thunderclap started with a bang that sent her running into a wall in her panic. I had known that Kylie was sensitive to loud sounds, but this was the first time I had seen her sensitivity rise to the level of intense fear.

There are three categories of factors that contribute to thunder phobia: exposure to loud thunder during a puppy’s fear periods (6 to 16 weeks and often for shorter, more random periods before the age of 1); single-event traumatic imprinting (a single, dramatic exposure to thunder); and repeated exposure to thunder while showing growing concern for the noise and no intervention is attempted.

Symptoms of thunder phobia include panting, shivering, hiding, urinating, defecating and destructive behaviors.

Luckily, there are things you can do to help your dog cope with this fear. Treatment falls within three broad categories:

Changes to the dog’s environment

Create a “safe haven” by using an interior closet with a blanket-covered crate. This offers your dog a place to go where the sound is muffled.

Mask the noise with a nursery sound machine, a noisy fan or by playing soothing music.

Invest in a “Thunder Shirt” for your dog. This simple wrap has proven to soothe noise phobias in dogs. You can investigate the Thunder Shirt more thoroughly at www.thundershirt.com.

Your input

Obviously, being yelled at when you are scared does nothing to help with the fear. Yet we, as humans, fall back on that natural reaction to a dog’s sudden change in behavior with remarkable consistency. Remain calm.

Start working with your dog’s fear before the next thunderstorm by using a CD of thunder sounds in a controlled environment. Play the CD at low volume as you hold a “puppy party” by playing and giving treats. Gradually, you should be able to raise the volume while your dog’s perception of the sound goes from panic to “let’s start the party.”

Dietary supplements and medications

Research at Tufts University has found that melatonin, a hormone produced naturally in the dog’s body, can be very helpful. You can check on dosage levels at http://webcanine.com/2007/melatonin-for-stress.

ProQuiet, an l-tryptophan supplement, also can reduce anxiety in dogs and has been shown to be safe.

There has been a boom in research into canine behavior issues over the last decade, and your veterinarian can help you decide if the addition of an azapirone, benzodiazepine or SSRI is appropriate in your dog’s situation.

Having caught Kylie’s phobia early, I was able to work with her to help her cope with her fears. If your dog is suffering from thunder phobia, I hope these tips help you find the sunshine after the storm, too.

Julie Winkelman is a certified pet dog trainer and a certified dog trainer. Reach her at www.alphacanineacademy.com.