Storm Phobias & Anxiety….not to be taken lightly

Many of our friends and clients know that we’ve been on a journey to identify solutions to relieve the severe anxiety our three year old Aussie, Cody, experiences during a thunderstorm.  We periodically discuss his situation in classes and private behavior consulting sessions in order to help others understand that the anxiety a dog experiences in response to a particular phobia can have potentially serious health implications.

As defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:  Phobia: noun; an exaggerated, usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects or a situation. Anxiety:  noun; an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear, often marked by physiological signs (sweating, tension, increased pulse), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of a threat….”.

Many dogs experience some form of mild anxiety in response to an oncoming or present thunderstorm.  While we don’t know what’s going on inside the dog’s brain, the physiological symptoms can present as rapid breathing, trembling, shaking, dilated pupils, rapid panting, drooling, hypervigilance (moving about a lot), frenzied running (to escape from or charge toward the sound) and non-stop barking.  All of these are an emotional response to something associated with some particular stimulus associated with the storm such as change in barometric pressure, other sounds (wind rain), change in light (lightening flashes) and even change in our own human behavior during the storm.

Many dogs suffer in silence, meaning they don’t vocalize during a storm; however, Cody’s response is to continually charge through the house, eyes fully dilated, running and barking at the sound of thunder.  He doesn’t seem to react to a change in barometric pressure, but at the very first slightest rumble of thunder, he’s very much out of his thinking brain and experiencing an emotional reaction to the storm.

One way to help an animal change their particular emotional response to something in their environment is counter conditioning and desensitization (CC&D).  This is done by pairing the scary stimulus at a very low level of intensity with something that’s extremely high value to the dog (usually incredibly yummy food).  Unfortunately, CC&D isn’t always successful because it’s difficult to control the level of intensity during the behavior modification period; however, it’s something we recommend and are using nonetheless.

We’ve tried all of the normal recommended complementary therapies, but they haven’t made any change in Cody’s anxiety.  These include the Thundershirt (an anxiety wrap many of our clients have had success with), music therapy (Through a Dog’s Ear, a clinically researched auditory series of CDs to help calm dogs and reduce anxiety), Dog Appeasing Pheromones or D.A.P.™ (synthetically produced pheromone which mimics the properties of the natural pheromones of the lactating female which have a calming effect on many dogs), an herbal calming collar and Melatonin (an over the counter supplement often recommended by Dr. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS at Tufts University).  Note:  it’s important to check with your veterinarian before using any over the counter supplement on your dogs.

As Dr. Karen Overall, a veterinary behaviorist says, “Storm and noise phobias are emergencies.  They’ll only worsen with exposure, and the rate at which they worsen depends on the neurochemistry of the dog and the severity and unpredictability of the storms.”  Because of her published work that I studied, I realized we needed to consider medication for Cody.

Pharmaceuticals are something I consider last when working with any behavior issue, but if no success is occurring with behavior modification and alternative therapies, then a consult with a veterinarian about medication is in order.  In Cody’s case, we had tried most everything without success and his level of anxiety was still so severe that after a consult with our vet, we agreed to adding drugs in the form of Alprazolam given shortly before a storm and he’s also Fluoxetine (Reconcile), a long acting SSRI.  He’s been on the Reconcile for over 60 days and we’ve seen no improvement, so we’re discussing with our vet what’s next since there’s no reduction in his anxiety.  All dogs are individuals and different pharmaceuticals affect each one differently, just like humans.  It may be that this combination just isn’t the right combination for him, so we’ll move on to explore others.

If your dog is experiencing anxiety to a storm, then don’t dally….seek help from a trainer schooled in behavior, as well as a consult with your veterinarian.  Many times, training and behavior modification alone can make a tremendous difference.  However, drugs certainly have a place in behavior modification and aren’t to be feared when they can prevent suffering from storm and noise phobias.

Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a Pat Miller Certified Trainer-Level2 and a dog*tec Certified Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina.  She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities for dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S.


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