By Carolyn Kocman
Owners and caretakers can almost always recognize phobia related behaviors. Shaking, drooling, panting, restlessness, pacing, clinging to owners and hiding are all fairly overt and recognizable behaviors that can be triggered by such things as loud noises or thunderstorm activity.
Immediate Recommendations for Panicking Dogs
There are a number of things pet owners can do to comfort an animal that is in the throes of phobia related behavior. What follows is a list of more immediate recommendations. These are not tips on modifying the behavior and should not be construed as such.
These are emergency measures to take for the animal that experiences the crisis of the moment and is in a frenzied, panicked state.
An owner with a dog that is presently displaying phobia related behaviors will need some immediate recommendations. Wrapping a dog with a pressure type garment can help settle the panicked dog, but is not a guaranteed management tool for the symptoms of phobia. These types of products generally recommend that the animal be fitted with the garment prior to the fear-inducing event.
Sometimes that is simply not possible. Furthermore, this type of product is little more than a band aid. Though there is some merit in providing the fearful dog with help in reducing his behavioral manifestations, it is far better to get at the root of the problem than simply treat the symptoms.
In many cases, behavior professionals only receive reports of such episodes when the window of prevention has already passed. As such they may end up giving the owners directives on what to do between that first contact and the time that they can begin with the actual behavior modification program.
“Once the [thunderstorm] season ends, the problem is no longer pressing so unfortunately behavior modification often takes the back burner until the next season when the fear or panic occurs again,” said Tara Houser, PPG member and behavior professional who specializes in treating phobia related behavior. Houser noted that this type of behavior tends to worsen with age.
It would be fitting then for trainers and other behavior professionals to keep a list of tips and directives on hand for this very purpose. It may also be in the interest of the trainer to follow up with the client at the end of the season.
A bolt-hole is a safe and comforting place to which the dog may retreat to avoid aversive stimuli that are present in the current environment. This place should be away from the source of the disturbance. In the case of thunderstorm phobias, for example, it should be an inside room away from a window or door.
The bolt-hole may be a bed or crate (but keep the door open). The bolt-hole may be located in a small room such as a bathroom or walk-in closet, or it may be a corner of a larger room.
This is an area that should always be set up and made available to the animal. The dog should be familiar with the space far in advance of a storm, but should also maintain positive associations with the space.
The bolt-hole is an integral component in helping the dog escape from the stress triggers in the environment. It should be a calm place and as previously mentioned, should be filled with positive associations; therefore, it is necessary to include some of the more important items in a dog’s world, such as toys and bedding.
A piece of the owner’s clothing (with his/her scent) is often found to be a comfort to a stressed pet and it can be a good idea to put one of these items in the area.
While there are varied opinions on DAP diffusers, it certainly is an option that can be offered to an owner. Having this available in the bolt-hole environment has been proven effective by Mills et al. (2006), who found that Dog Appeasing Pheromones can calm an anxious pet in the veterinary setting.
Minimize Exposure to Stimuli
Maybe it should not have to be said, but do not put a dog displaying phobia related behavior outside in the storm to “deal with it.” Some owners may be of the mindset that flooding an animal will lead to non-reaction to stimuli. Some may simply not want to contend with the phobia related behaviors themselves. However, this practice will make matters worse rather than better.
Sometimes it is possible to remove the stimulus which triggers the phobia. For example, if the dog is fearful of a particular sound, such as a ringing doorbell, it may be possible to temporarily remove the battery in order to eliminate the dog’s exposure to the stimulus.
However, many times this is not a possibility, as would be the case with a thunderstorm or a neighbor’s fireworks display.
In the event that it is impossible to completely control the stimulus itself, it is usually possible to reduce the animal’s exposure to it. During a thunderstorm, it will mean closing windows to minimize exposure to thunder noise and closing blinds to limit exposure to lightning.
Masking the sounds that are involved during storm activity can also be helpful: turning on a television, radio, or white noise machine. It can be helpful to throw a blanket over a crate or give the dog blankets in which to hide or burrow to limit noise and light exposure as well.
Reinforce the Fear?
To a degree, the science is still out on whether comforting a dog’s fear can be reinforced. Fear is, after all, an emotion and not a behavior.
According to Houser, “I have not seen negative effects on the dog’s behavior when the owner simply sits with the dog. Fear is an emotion, necessary for survival, which causes a dog to choose to escape the fear eliciting stimulus. It would not be to the benefit of the dog to remain in a situation that caused fear, so I don’t see how you could reinforce this emotion.”
This sentiment is shared by Dr. Patricia McConnell (2009) in You Can’t Reinforce Fear; Dogs and Thunderstorms: “…you’re not going to make [your dog] more afraid of storms if you stroke his head and tell him it’s going to be okay. The bad news is that petting won’t help (him or her) much either.”
Though we would strive for more scientific evidence on the subject, it may be most prudent in the meantime to give comfort to the dog without overdoing it. This may be a fine line to walk.
Consider the spousal relationship: if you are upset with your spouse, neither being ignored nor continuous talking will resolve your emotional state. What is actually required is a modicum of these behaviors: comfort without overindulgence. The same applies here.
While these top three directives should be in the owner’s toolbox, there is far more that must be done in order to help an animal conquer phobia related behavior and improve his welfare. To prevent or extinguish the behaviors completely, the owner must deal with them long before they surface.
A dog should be taught how to relax. Keep in mind that relaxation is ultimately only going to be helpful if the dog is desensitized and counterconditioned to the aversive stimulus. Relaxation can be taught and reinforced with the use of Dr. Karen Overall’s relaxation protocols or a variant thereof.
Training a dog to perform a solid sit/stay and release cue will do a world of good in this situation. The dog learns that it must focus on its owner for a release and ultimately learns to relax in the process of waiting.
Diminishing phobia related behaviors in an animal must necessarily involve desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization is the process of diminishing and/or eliminating the response to the aversive stimulus. Counterconditioning is what happens when the animal is given positive experiences which then become associated with the stimulus, ultimately creating a more appropriate response when exposed.
These two processes go hand-in-hand. The trained behavior professional will work with the owner in providing a behavior modification program for the animal with the aim of greatly improving his welfare.
In order for the animal to begin making the appropriate associations with the stimulus, it is essential to begin introducing those associations separately from the anxiety producing stimulus.
Behavior professionals will provide owners with the necessary guidelines in order to successfully countercondition the dog to the stimulus. Owners may begin this process by practicing Overall’s relaxation protocols with the dog away from any stimuli that may trigger phobia related behaviors.
The relaxation time within the context of the protocols will be increased gradually. Once a dog learns to relax away from the stimulus, the next steps will involve very slow and methodical reintroduction of the phobia inducing stimuli.
The behavior professional will seek to pair the stimulus with something that reinforces relaxation. It is important that this be in a controlled environment so that the possibility of flooding and setbacks is minimized.
A Little More Help
Some animals just need a little more help in getting over that hump.
It is possible that for more refractory phobia cases an animal may need medication, but by no means do all animals need to be on medication continuously or even indefinitely. Most veterinarians will be knowledgeable on this issue and can guide owners regarding what is best for their particular pet.
However, as a side note, both owners and professionals can benefit from educating themselves regarding the functions of various psychotropic drugs. A little knowledge can go a long way.
McConnell, P. (2009). You Can’t Reinforce Fear; Dogs and Thunderstorms
Mills, D. S., Ramos, D., Estelles, M. G., & Hargrave, C. (2006). A triple blind placebo-controlled investigation into the assessment of the effect of Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) on anxiety related behaviour of problem dogs in the veterinary clinic. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 98(1), 114-126
Overall, K. (1997). Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. St. Louis, MO: Mosby
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, November 2015, pp.26-28.