Behavior & Training Article
Help Your Pet Deal With Thunderstorms
Author: Wiki Pet
Where does this phobia come from anyway?
Are dogs just fearful of loud noises? All mammals instinctually steer clear of loud noises, but responses of terror, hiding, shaking, or aggression, are not appropriate responses. So where does this problem begin? One answer to that question would be that dogs are creatures of conditioned responses. Psychology defines a conditioned response as "a learned response as a result of a stimulus that creates a change in behavior". This can be applied to dogs as well, since the majority of a pet's lifetime personality traits are determined by the environment in which they live.
Dogs, especially those adopted from a pound, may have had a traumatic experience in the past with something that creates a loud noise. Strays are often shot at with guns, and will find themselves without shelter even during severe thunder storms. The stray will then learn that the smell of rain, the flashes of lightning, and the loud thunder means a storm is coming and they have to seek shelter immediately. Without the sense of security that comes along with sufficient shelter, the dog may enter a panic state. The dog mentioned here has just been conditioned to RESPOND to thunderstorms and other loud noises in a fearful manner, and to seek the most heartily fortified shelter available.
This also applies to house pets that have never been strays. Pets can learn responses from their owners when they react to an inbound thunderstorm. If you as a pet owner act fearful, in awe, or coddle your pet during a fierce storm, the pet will learn to associate those storms with fear - EVEN IF they aren't afraid of the storm.
What are we doing wrong?
Pet owners will often feel sorry for their fearful pet and will coddle him, talk him to in a pitiful manner, or attempt to hide them from the storm. Other owners may allow the pet to hide in a closet or bathroom, thinking that their pet feels safer in their hiding spot. The problem here is that these actions reinforce the un-desirable actions. If your pet is shivering in a corner or hiding in a closet, telling him "good boy" will show him that his feelings are appropriate and warranted - further reinforcing the fear and promoting the anxiety.
Tips to help anxious dogs
If your pet is currently suffering for a phobia of loud noises, there are a few simple steps you can take to reduce the severity of the anxiety. Conditional (learned) response training works both ways and it can be used to positively affect their behavior just as easily as they were affected by the thunderstorms. These techniques take time, and you may not immediately notice an improvement in the dog's behavior. Don't lose hope since this is just part of the behavior modification process.
Begin by changing the pet's associations with the stimulus such as the thunderstorm, fireworks, or other loud noises. For non-severe cases of anxiety where your pet is simply uneasy around loud noises or thunderstorms, you can being to associate playing with a favorite toy, healthy treats, basic grooming such as brushing is also great to soothe a pet. Take care to only speak to your pet in a confident, un-affected manner. Attempting to use human soothing tones with an anxious pet is often associated to the whining of a submissive member of the household and reflective of anxiety or an un-settled disposition in the eyes of your pet. By setting the example and acting un-affected, you will help your pet to achieve the same level of calmness, which is the most important part of the training process.
More deeply affected pets may need much more in depth rehabilitation. These pets will run away, cower, hide in closets and under beds, and may even be agitated to the point of lashing out when you approach them. In these situations, especially if you have a larger dog, take care to ensure your safety before attempting to help your pet. To begin, at the first sign of a storm, close off all areas of the house where your pet usually hides and create a new hiding space with slightly less cover than the regular spot. You're chosen location will provide you with ample space to work with your pet.
Begin by distracting your pet as the storm beings and attempt to re-direct their energy to a favorite toy or treat just as listed above. If the distraction fails, allow the dog to go to your designated hiding spot, follow him, and gently attempt to coax him out. Don't worry if this is unsuccessful. Each storm that passes will bring a slight increase in confidence, and once you are able to keep your dog by your side during the storm is a giant success.
The most important thing to remember is that you create the environment as the leader of the household and the other members follow your example. If you are anxious every time a storm arrives, your pets will begin to emulate your actions. Stay calm and unaffected when you have an adult dog who already suffers from anxiety.
Owners of young dogs and new puppies can avoid this situation all together by taking the dogs outside to play in the rain, a thunderstorm, or by exposing them to loud noises at a young age (within reason). As a thunder clap event happens, reassure the uneasy pet with a few firm pats on the head or chest and resume playing with no emotion connected to the thunder. However, if your pup is unaffected by the noise, do not approach them as the thunder claps. Many dogs, especially those of the sporting group are completely unaffected by loud noises. Take care not to go out in dangerous lightning storms.
I take every new pup of mine outside during storms at the youngest possible age to get them acclimated to the weather. I will throw on some swimming shorts and a waterproof baseball hat and head out to slosh around in the ever present backyard puddles with them, which couldn't be more fun! Puppies are generally unaffected by anything, which makes it that much easier to condition them to have virtually no response to storms at all. My dogs love running around like crazies in the rain and wind storms so common here on the coast of South Carolina and yours can too, just remember to reward appropriate behavior.
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