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Using Training to Reduce Fear of Thunder and Loud Noises

Using Training to Reduce Fear of Thunder and Loud Noises

Thunderstorm phobia or noise phobia is a common anxiety disorder seen in dogs. Dogs have a keen sense of hearing and storms create loud noises from thunder, wind and rain that can be fearful. Severe storms create atmospheric changes in air pressure, static electricity, and scents that dogs can detect well before humans. These changes coupled with the ominous sights and sounds of an approaching storm create high levels of anxiety in susceptible dogs.

Fear of storms and loud noises can occur in any breed, though it is more prevalent in certain breeds that tend to experience higher levels of anxiety including German Shepherds, Border Collies, Australian Shepherds and Beagles. Dogs that have had a traumatic experience during a storm may develop a lasting phobia, though this can also occur with no precipitating event.

Dogs with noise phobia will exhibit signs of anxiety and distress when they detect an approaching storm. Common signs include panting, pacing, seeking comfort from their owner, hiding, trembling and trying to escape the noise. As the storm progresses, signs of stress escalate. Affected dogs may drool profusely, loss bodily control, damage property in attempts to escape, injure themselves in panic, and experience spikes in blood pressure and heart rate that can lead to death in extreme cases.

Treatment of thunderstorm phobia focuses on gradually decreasing a dog's anxiety and fearful response through desensitization and counterconditioning. This involves controlled exposure to recordings of thunderstorms and other loud noises, paired with positive reinforcement, play and rewards to change the dog's emotional response and build confidence.

Using Desensitization to Treat Noise Phobia

Desensitization is a gradual training process of controlled exposure to the feared stimulus, in this case, noises associated with storms. It relies on a principle of learning theory – habituation. When an unfamiliar stimulus is repeatedly presented in a controlled setting, the reaction to it will decrease over time through habituation.

Desensitization training re-trains the dog's reaction to the stimulus by presenting it at low levels that do not invoke fear so that the dog can habituate. The intensity is gradually increased as the dog habituates to each level and remains under threshold (not anxious or fearful). This gradual counterconditioning changes the dog's negative associations and emotional response to the stimulus.

To be effective, desensitization must start with very low audio levels that the dog can tolerate without reacting, and progress slowly over days or weeks. Attempting to expose a dog to loud thunder noises too quickly will make the fear worse. Patience and a slow progression are key.

Steps for Successful Desensitization

Here are the key steps to carry out a desensitization training plan:

  • Create audio recordings of thunderstorms with both thunder and wind/rain noises. Start with very low volume background rumbling that most dogs can tolerate without reacting.

  • Play the recordings at low volumes while engaging the dog in play, toys, training exercises and food rewards to create a positive association.

  • Gradually increase the volume over multiple sessions if the dog is staying relaxed and taking rewards. Go very slowly to keep volume under threshold.

  • If the dog reacts fearfully at any point, stop and return to a lower volume for the next session. This is not a linear process. Expect ups and downs and regressions as you increase intensity.

  • Work up to recordings of real storms as the dog learns to maintain calm behavior. But go slowly and incrementally. Months of desensitization may be needed.

  • When real storms occur, use counterconditioning by engaging the dog and providing high value rewards to override the fear response.

  • Avoid coddling and soothing, which can reinforce the fearful behavior. Remain upbeat, act like nothing is wrong, and reward calm responses.

  • Consider using masking noise from fans, TV or music to muffle outdoor storm noises and make them less frightening if needed.

Patience and an incremental training plan are vital for overcoming a dog's fear of thunder and loud noises through desensitization and counterconditioning. Progress may be slow, but sticking with it can result in significant improvement.

Using Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement training is an essential component of desensitization programs for noise phobia. Rewarding desired calm behavior teaches the dog an alternate response instead of panicking.

Food rewards with high value treats that dogs don't receive routinely work very well for counterconditioning against fear. Food engages senses and shifts the dog's emotional state quicker than praise alone.

When first introducing audio recordings, periodically reward the dog for any sign of calm behavior – relaxing, lying down, looking at you. Use special treats that make a strong positive association.

Gradually shift to rewarding specific actions like obedience cues and tricks during the recordings. "Watch me", "sit" and "down" are great commands for engaging the dog's focus. Mark and reward correct responses.

Incorporating play is also powerful for counterconditioning. Toys and play that the dog loves create a positive experience to distract from the storm noises.

Never reward fearful reactions by consoling the dog. But if the dog is too upset to take treats, the volume level needs to be reduced again in the next session.

Regular daily obedience training will also boost a dog's overall confidence and resilience when faced with frightening noises. A dog that has learned to respond to cues and focus is less easily startled.

Using Management Tools

In addition to behavior modification with desensitization training, management tools can help reduce a dog's fear during real thunderstorms.

Providing a safe, enclosed space is important for noise phobic dogs. A crate or small room with cozy bedding gives the dog a place to retreat when overwhelmed by noises. Covering the crate can block sights and muffle sound. Playing masking music or TV can further reduce noise impact.

Anxility wraps and shirts apply gentle pressure that has a calming effect for many dogs. The snug fit seems to relax anxious dogs. There are many styles and pressure levels to choose from.

Natural calming supplements can be tried in conjunction with training. Formulas with melatonin, tryptophan, chamomile, passionflower and L-theanine may take the edge off. They should never be used alone without training.

Pheromone diffusers and sprays release calming chemicals and may be helpful during storms. Adaptil is a commonly used dog appeasing pheromone.

In extreme phobia cases, prescription anti-anxiety medication may be used short term along with training. Sedatives can reduce panic reactions while training has a chance to work. A veterinary behaviorist should guide medication use.

Management tools provide additional support while behavior modification training is being implemented. But the core treatment for noise phobia should always focus on the desensitization training plan.

Helping Dogs Overcome Storm Phobias

The severity of a dog's thunderstorm phobia can range from mild unease to extreme panic. But even severely affected dogs can be helped with a dedicated, gradual training plan. The keys are:

  • Start desensitization sessions at very low, subtle volumes the dog can tolerate without reacting. This may just be a barely audible rumble.

  • Increase storm noise volume extremely gradually over many sessions based on the dog's reactions. Avoid pushing too far too fast.

  • Reward calm behavior heavily during sessions using high-value food treats, favorite toys and play.

  • Practice obedience commands and focus exercises during sessions to shift the dog's state of mind.

  • Use calming supplements moderately to take the edge off during sessions. But don't rely on them solely.

  • Provide a safe space and firmly ignore fearful behaviors – no consoling or coddling which can reinforce the fears.

  • Be patient and consistent. Progress happens incrementally. Expect some setbacks. Stick with the plan.

  • Do not punish reactions or force the dog to face fears, which can worsen the phobia. Desensitization must be gradual.

With a customized training plan using desensitization, counterconditioning and positive reinforcement, even dogs with extreme storm phobias can conquer their fears and learn to remain calm during thunderstorms and loud noises. Consistency, patience and a slow gradual training process are key to success.

Preventing Thunderstorm Phobias

Preventing noise phobias from developing in the first place is always preferable to treating an existing phobia. Here are some tips:

  • Socialize puppies to a wide variety of normal household sounds and environments during the critical 3-12 week socialization window before fear responses fully develop.

  • Gradually expose puppies to recordings of thunderstorms and other loud noises at low levels paired with rewards to build positive associations.

  • Avoid consoling or coddling a puppy that startles or reacts to a loud noise as this can reinforce fearful behavior. Distract with a toy or treat instead.

  • Provide a safe enclosure or crate during storms, but don't remove the puppy or overly comfort them if fearful. Calmly proceed as normal.

  • Start early obedience training to boost confidence and engagement with the owner when startled by sudden noises.

  • Consider noise sensitivities when selecting a breed. Nervous breeds prone to phobias may need extra socialization and counterconditioning.

  • Adopt puppies from shelters, rescues or breeders after 7-8 weeks for more successful socialization rather than removing too early from littermates.

  • Use calming supplements temporarily during puppy fear stages to prevent phobias from developing.

While heredity plays a role in anxiety predispositions, proactive socialization and training can prevent most dogs from developing full-blown noise phobias in adulthood. Laying this early foundation sets dogs up for resilience.

Seeking Professional Help

For dogs with severe storm phobias causing harm to themselves or destruction, a consultation with a professional trainer or veterinary behaviorist may be needed. Chronic anxiety can erode a dog's quality of life.

Signs that professional help is warranted include:

  • Self-injury during storms such as chewing/licking, running into walls or crashing through windows.

  • Refusing to eat, extreme lethargy or other symptoms of depression.

  • Panicked attempts to escape like digging, jumping fences or bolting through doors.

  • Biting or aggression towards owners trying to provide restraint or comfort.

  • Property damage from chewing, scratching, urinating or defecating.

  • Non-responsiveness to owner's commands due to an abnormal state of panic.

  • Agitation and anxiety for an abnormally long period after storms have passed.

  • Disorientation, loss of bowel/urinary control, vomiting or blue gums indicating a medical emergency.

  • Fear response to storms escalating over time rather than improving.

A certified trainer can design an effective desensitization and counterconditioning program tailored to your dog's needs. Veterinary behaviorists can prescribe anti-anxiety medication in extreme cases to use in conjunction with behavior therapy. By seeking professional help sooner, long-term suffering and harm can be prevented.

With customized training, medication if needed, patience and time, the vast majority of dogs with debilitating noise phobias can overcome their fears and learn to remain calm in storms. Consistency is vital for changing well-established fears, but it can be done. There are many happy endings for dogs and owners who commit to the training process. With the right help, dogs can learn to weather the storm calmly and get back to being happy dogs.

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