Desensitizing Your Dog to Thunder or Loud Noises
Noise or Thunder phobia
Fear of thunderstorms (as well as other loud noises such as fireworks and gunshots) and the stress response to them, is called noise phobia. It is important to remember that every pet is different and it is about learning what works for him/her.
The first thing to do is attempt to limit the noise as much as is possible; in theory – limiting the phobia. Close the curtains to limit the flashes of bright lightening that accompany the thunder or the display of fireworks. Turn on the television or radio in the room with the dog to help mask the claps of thunder or pops of fireworks if possible.
It is very important that you remain calm and act normally around the dog. It best to not make a fuss over him/her and try not to coddle them as this often causes the dog to believe that if you are that upset about the noise then it really must be as terrible as he/she thinks it is. The calmer you are and more you ignore the the dog’s reaction to the noise, the better your calm attitude will be reassurance to the dog that all is not as bad as he/she thinks it is. Dogs can sense and smell when we are nervous or frightened and their sensing our own anxiety only tends to reinforce their own anxieties. By ignoring the storm and distracting the dog with a game including a favorite toy and treats, often helps some dogs begin to understand that the storm is no big deal.
The use of aromatherapy up to 30 minutes prior to a storm or fireworks and during the storm as you are distracting the dog, may be very helpful in easing the dog’s anxiety.
Calming music designed to slow the heart rate and aid in de-stressing the dog have worked wonders for many dogs – especially when used with aromatherapy and/or flower essences.
Meanwhile, using desensitizing exercises with your dog to the noise of thunder or fireworks often prove very effective.
By slowly exposing your him/her to the sound of thunder (and other loud noises if they are fearful of them as well) on recordings while always making it a happy time with treats and calming sounds or smells, can help to not only reduce your dog’s noise sensitivity but in many cases – alleviate it.
This approach involves several steps and centers around desensitization and counter-conditioning (DCC). These steps listed below are best started when there is no thunderstorm or fireworks going on if at all possible. A DCC program involves exposing the dog to each component of the thunderstorm to a degree that either does not evoke a fearful response at all (this can be difficult) or at the very least evokes less of a fearful response. Always reward relaxation/no response or even less response from the dog with praise and a food treat. If your dog is not accepting the food treat, he is too stressed and the intensity of the stimulus needs to be decreased.
There are CD’s with recordings of thunderstorms, fireworks, gun shots, etc. available. These will give us the sounds and are a great place to start. Always start out playing the recording on a very low setting, barely audible to the human ear (A dog can sense sounds at four times the distance of a human and will often become anxious and fearful before you even know there is a storm coming. They can hear and sense it way before we can). Compared to humans, who can hear frequencies between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz, dogs can hear sounds between 67 Hz and 45,000 to 60,000 Hz, depending on breed. This means healthy dogs can hear higher frequencies than humans. Dogs can hear the heartbeat of a rabbit or the peep of a mouse.
Give a few drops of flower essences on the dog’s nose or on the tongue.
Diffuse calming essential oils or pet the dog with the calming oils and reward any and all calm behavior. It is VERY important that you do not increase the volume too fast. Going too fast is the most common mistake people make. After several short sessions (3-5 minutes each) per day for a few days, begin to increase the volume. If your dog begins to react, ignore him, turn the sound off, and restart at the previous volume that he did not react to and simply start over. I cannot stress enough the importance of going slow! You cannot go too slow, but you can very easily go too fast.
Once the sound components have been dealt with (thunder and rain) it is time to move on to the visual side of the, lightning or fireworks. A camera flash or strobe light can be used. Start with just a single flash and reward as stated above. Slowly start to increase the frequency of the flashes and then the intensity (bring it closer, but never flash it right in the dog’s face). As you begin to move closer, start over with one flash, then slowly increase the number of flashes at that distance.
Natural remedies can be used before and or during a desensitization session to put the dog in a calm state for the session. If there happens to be a storm before you have your dog desensitized, the use of homeopathic, herbal, remedies, flower essences or essential oils are also wonderfully effective yet perfectly safe in helping to calm pets during a storm. In fact, if you know you are due to have thunderstorms use the calming remedy of your choice as early as the day before the storm or noise is predicted to take place and continue it through the event.