Written by: Dr. Chip Coombs
One of the most common concerns that dog owners are faced with is the ability of their best friend to deal with stress. The world we live in seems to get ever more stressful and the realities of anxiety have become commonplace in almost every family. Fortunately, we are more willing to face these issues in the open and not pretend that they don’t exist. Just as anxiety is so commonplace in people, it is also a very concerning issue with our canine family members. It might manifest itself while travelling in the car, being left alone in the house, meeting tall strangers in dark clothing or being exposed to loud noises. Each one of these trigger factors can be a huge problem for any individual dog, but as summer approaches the exposure to loud noises in the form of holiday celebration (e.g. firecrackers) and thunderstorms come to the forefront.
If you are planning on getting a puppy, part of their socialization training that should begin on day one includes exposing them to potentially frightening loud noises. Examples would include purposely dropping a metal cooking pot on the floor when your puppy is not in the same room; close enough to hear the clanging on the floor and to be curious to investigate, but not so close as to scare him half to death. Repeat this frequently over the days and months, potentially at increasing proximity to the puppy, as long as he doesn’t show signs of any fear. When you are out for walks and someone is mowing their lawn, first pass the mower on the opposite side of the street - if there is no sign of fearfulness, then try passing at a closer distance. The idea is to expose your puppy to all of these strange, loud noises (traffic, children playing, busy sidewalks, construction sites, etc.) at a seemingly “safe” distance, so as to not trigger any fear. If no fear is exhibited, then you can gradually shorten the distance between your puppy and the noise, or extend the length of time to which they are exposed to the noise. The hope is that over time your puppy becomes acclimatized to what are becoming “ho-hum” events.
If your puppy did not get this kind of exposure and is now freaking out when he hears a thunder storm coming or the firework display on a holiday weekend, then you will have your work cut out for you in terms of allaying his fear. However, with time and perseverance, the vast majority of dogs can be reconditioned to not fear these events. Ironically, Spring and Summer are not the ideal times to try to recondition your dog’s fear; the reason being that fireworks and thunderstorms are common at these times and out of your control, potentially setting back your training. Ideally, the best time to recondition is in the Fall and Winter, when the risk of loud noises is far less.
The principal behind the reconditioning is to expose your dog to very faint noises initially and, over time, to slowly increase the intensity of the noise, while your dog is pre-occupied doing pleasurable things like playing or eating. Purchase or stream sound-effects that contains loud noises, such as thunderstorms and fireworks - even some classical music pieces would work. Initially, your dog can be in another room or at a hearing distance at which they have no negative reaction. Engage your dog in play behavior, games, meal time or some other fun activity and slowly increase the volume. At some point you will notice your dog start to show signs of anxiousness. This indicates you have exceeded his tolerance threshold, so turn down the volume a bit and keep it at this level for a few more days. As he slowly gets acclimatized, the volume slowly increases. Eventually, if you are patient enough, over many weeks with numerous daily sessions, you should be able to have the noises blasting away and the only one reacting negatively is your neighbour!
The other helpful trick is when you know that loud noises will be occurring (e.g. May 24 and July 1), keep your windows closed, draw the curtains and try to be home with your dog on these evenings. Watch television or offer some other normal ambient background noise to distract him and pay lots to attention to him by playing. This is usually effective short term until the long-term training has been completed.
Thunderstorms, however, provide a unique challenge. Not only are they unpredictable, they are preceded by a drop in barometric pressure. This drop can occur hours before the storm clouds roll in and it is often the drop in pressure that triggers your dog’s anxiety. He has associated the lowering pressure with the thunder and lightning that often follows, and so the anxiety may manifest itself with a blue sky overhead. For this same reason anxietolytic drugs prescribed by your veterinarian may not be as effective for thunderstorms, as your dog is already stressed out well before you even realize a storm is coming. These sedative-like drugs are most effective before the anxiety sets in.
An owner might think that the simplest solution to their dog’s loud noise induced anxiety is to administer a drug. It some circumstances, it can be an effective quick fix. However, drugs don’t always work and an owner may not always be around to administer them. The more effective, long-term answer is to recondition your dog to not fear the noises. Although this takes time and patience and is more difficult to achieve in the Spring and Summer, it is effective. If you don’t think you are having success, then wait until the Fall to begin the training and offer palliative, soothing, short term distractions over the summer when a storm is on the horizon.