We’re now officially in the thick of fireworks and thunderstorm season. For many dogs, that translates into a summer of terror. Neither behavior nor veterinary professionals know for sure why some dogs develop noise phobias and others do not (or why cats seldom do). We do know they are one of the more common problems seen in older dogs. Our Irish setter Coral was never bothered by storms until 2 years ago, when she turned 7 years old.
Now the sound of thunder causes her to pant and pace. Many dogs are much more upset, hurting themselves trying to get into or out of the house or yard, not knowing how to escape the noise, but just trying to get someplace other than where they are. When we aren’t home, Coral retreats to the basement where both the sound of thunder and flashes of lightening are muted. In our presence, she seeks us out, wanting to be close.
We massage Coral’s ears (which she loves), and talk to her quietly which helps to calm her. A long standing myth in the dog training world is that if you attempt to reassure a fearful pet, you’re only “rewarding” the fear and making the problem worse.
In all honesty, we believed this myth when we first started training dogs, many more years ago than we’d like to admit. But now that we know more about how animals learn and how different types of learning affect emotions we know this is simply not true.
If we put our arm around a child who’s been frightened by a scary movie, our actions don’t increase the child’s fear of what she saw. Just the opposite occurs – our comfort has a calming effect. Similarly if we tell a child in a firm voice “DON’T BE AFRAID!” our harsh words do nothing to lessen his fear. In fact, he now may be afraid of us as well as the movie!
The take-home message is that if your dog is calmer if you pet her and allow her to sit in your lap when she hears thunder or fireworks - then by all means let her be in your lap! Don’t be surprised if she seeks you out more when she’s afraid. That’s not a sign you’ve made her more afraid, but only that she’s learned what makes her feel better.
As Coral discovered about our basement on her own, consider creating a place in your house where the noises your dog is afraid of are less intense and take her there so she can get in the habit of going there without you.
There are other interventions that will likely be necessary to decrease or at least manage a dog’s noise phobias, ranging from body wraps to behavior modification to medication prescribed by your veterinarian. Double check that medication from your veterinarian is designed to decrease fear, not just tranquilize your dog and if it does just tranquilize your dog, check with your veterinarian to be sure the medication is right for your dog.
And one of the best times to really work on decreasing your dog’s noise phobias is after thunder storm and firework season is over. High quality recordings of sounds give you the opportunity to gradually expose your dog to noises that frighten her, without the real thing interfering with progress.