Storm phobias can cause many different problem behaviours. Some of the more common signs are escape (sometimes resulting in injury), inappropriate soiling, vocalizing, destructive behaviours, trembling, hiding, pacing and salivating.
Phobias are exaggerated irrational responses to something, whether or not they actually caused harm to the individual. They develop from fears, which might have a potential survival benefit (e.g. it is good to fear snakes). They can often be triggered by something innocuous, e.g. with storm phobias, it can be a change in barometric pressure, or gusts of leaves being blown around as the storm approaches, or small rain showers.
Many dogs that have separation anxiety also have other behavioural problems and the most common of these are storm phobia. However, this is not always the case and sometimes phobias may occur independently of other behavioural disorders.
Ideally, avoid the storm if possible. Checking weather reports can provide some degree of predictability for high-risk days for storms and events such as New Year’s Eve will reliably increase the risk of exposure to other potential noise sensitivities. Sometimes it is possible to organize for the animal to be transported to a quiet area, for example, an area of the house that has been soundproofed. Background “white noise”, ear covers and sound muting cage covers might also assist in reducing the intensity of the storm while room darkening shades may reduce the visual effects. Creation of a safe haven for the dog in an appropriate area of the house is recommended, ideally, it is best for your dog to choose to the place. Many dogs will have an area that they prefer to place themselves. Provided it is safe, this is the best place for the dog to be.
Clients often worry that if they try to soothe or comfort the dog this will “reward” the fear. It is not possible to make the fear worse by adding something to the experience that allows the dog to cope better. So if talking calmly, long smooth strokes, allowing body contact or any other strategy helps the dog to be more settled, it is advisable to continue that intervention.
1. Desensitization is exposing the dog to the scary stimulus at a very low level so they are not scared. Then, the level is gradually increased as the dog exhibits an ability to cope. However, desensitization alone is unlikely to be successful. Some dogs are scared of the sound of thunder. In these cases, a CD recording of thunder noises played initially at a low level and gradually increased over time, may help. However, other dogs have different triggers, such as wind, barometric pressure changes, lightning and rain. In these cases, desensitizing is not possible.
2. Counter-conditioning is getting the dog to have a response that is incompatible with the phobia. For example, playing with or feeding the dog treats while there is a noise CD on at a low level. This causes a pairing between the sound of thunder and treats. The sound can gradually be increased. Your dog should never be punished for fearful behaviour as it will only make them more scared. The increasing intensity of the sound should be managed so that it is very gradual and never makes your dog fearful.
3. Relaxation training. This takes time, effort and repetition. Training your dog to settle and relax on his bed should be achieved before any scary sounds are added. This can be done by encouraging calm responses to cues (eg. 'lie down' or 'settle') and following it with a tasty treat. You should also be on the lookout for calm behaviour around the house, and reward that with a treat.
4. Anti-anxiety medications are often needed. They should be given 1 hour before the storm develops to have a chance to work. These can be prescribed by your vet. If your dog has other behavioural problems your vet might prescribe a daily anti-anxiety medication, with an additional therapeutic agent to be used for storms.
References: Debbie J. Calnon, BVMS, MACVSc (Behavior) ; Gary M. Landsberg, DVM, ACVB, ECAWBM.