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VET ANSWERS: Fear of thunderstorms

Thunderstorm Walk

Q: 
Our female collie is terrifiedof thunderstorms. We’ve always had dogs and have never witnessed such terror in a dog. She shakes so badly that we afraid that she might have a heart attack. 

We’ve managed to help her with her fears of sudden sharp noises such as the sound of coughing, using a stapler, even the closing of my purse. She doesn’t run or hide or anything, but just stares out the window and shakes. 

Should we get her some kind of tranquilizer to get her through storms?

A: Fear of thunderstorms (also known as “astraphobia”) is a surprisingly common problem among dogs. The fear of them may be so strong that some dogs can actually anticipate when a storm will come one or two days in advance and start shaking well before it arrives.

In most cases, the fear of storms is usually related to the noise component, although in some dogs, the combination of flashing lights, noise, and environmental factors may play a role. Elimination of this phobia is very time-consuming and involves several well-established training techniques. To get a dog acclimatized to the thunder, one particular technique called “systematic desensitization” can be used. 

With this method, your dog is exposed to storm noises at such a low level that she will not react. You can use commercial recordings of thunderstorms or record your own storm noises. Before starting, the recording should be played loudly to check to see if it will in fact illicit a fear response from your dog. 

The sound level is gradually increased over a period of time until such time as your dog experiences a fear reaction.You should not comfort your pet at this point as this will only serve to reinforce the fear behaviour. Instead, reduce the sound level and continue the training process but at a more gradual pace. Over a period of time (usually weeks) the noise level should be increased to such a point that your dog will no longer fear it. If your dog is also afraid of lightning, a strobe light can be used to simulate lightning. 

Another technique (called “counterconditioning”) can be used simultaneously during this training session. It involves distracting your dog during a mock “storm” with an easy training session (e.g. “sit”, “stay”, “come” and fetch) and then rewarding obedient behaviour. This serves to replace the fear emotion with one of satisfaction and enjoyment.

If these methods fail, consult your veterinarian. He or she may advise you of some other training techniques to use, with or without the use of behaviour modification drugs or tranquilizers.

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