Managing Noise Phobias – fireworks and thunderstorms

When a problematic noise or storm is occurring, how you manage the situation
can help your pet cope and hopefully minimise your pet’s distress. In extreme cases of storm/fireworks/noise phobia, medication is useful for very distressed pets, but should only be used under veterinary supervision. If prescribed, make sure you have the medication on hand, ready for the event. ‘Event’ medications work best if given at least 30 minutes prior to the stressful situation, so if you know a storm is predicted, keep a close watch for its arrival.

Remember that dogs can become affected by the noise or electrical activity of a storm when it is much further away than we humans realise, so medication may need to be given in the hours leading up to a predicted storm, particularly if you are expecting to be out shopping or at work when the storm or fireworks are predicted to occur. Some severely affected animals may be prescribed daily medication during storm season or other noisy periods like fireworks for New Years’ Eve celebrations.

Pitfalls to avoid:

■ Punishment must never be used since it will only increase rather than decrease your pet’s distress.

■ Encouragement, praise, or fostering (molly-coddling) are not helpful either, as the pet may interpret them as reinforcement and rewards for their fearful, anxious behaviours they are exhibiting at the time.

■ Try to remain calm yourself. If you are calm, it will help your pet.

Useful interventions:

■ If possible, make sure your pet is not alone during the stressful event.

■ Create a safe and secure environment for your pet. This might be a darkened room where lightning flashes will not be seen, or a windowless room where sound is muted. If your pet has self-selected a hiding place, do not try to forcibly remove them. This is not helpful and may result in an aggressive response.

■ Try playing music that is loud or has a strong beat or some type of white noise (such as an exhaust fan) to muffle the outside noises that cause the distress.

■ Playing with familiar toys, engaging in games, or practicing obedience may help to distract the pet leading up to the event, but must be stopped if the animal reacts to the noise and exhibits fear or attention-seeking behaviours, as the play will only reinforce the dog’s reaction to the noise. If the behavior is exhibited, ignore the dog. If the dog stops playing and shows fear during a thunder clap, but resumes playing after each clap, reinforce the resumption of play with positive interaction, praise and treats. In other words, ignore the unwanted fearful behavior, but reward all positive, confident, playful behavior.

■ Use of a head collar and leash may offer additional control and can be calming for some dogs. Thunder vests (see any big pet retailer) can also be very comforting for some (but not all) pets.

■ If you have pre-trained your pet to go and settle on a mat, bed, or other location, use this strategy to help calm the pet. A particularly good strategy for this is the use of crate training (see crate training tip sheet), since the crate can be a snug and comforting little ‘doggie den’ for an anxious pet who prefers to hide from something fearful. Let them emerge from the crate or bed (or other hiding place0 in their own good time, and lavish praise on them for emerging.

■ Once the event has passed, be proactive and contact your veterinarian for information on medications and your dog behaviourist on how to start desensitisation and counter-conditioning exercises to help your pet cope better with the next episode.

Desensitisation CDs, which replicate many sounds that can cause anxiety, can be purchased on the web. These can be regularly played during times when the pet is calm and happy, initially at low volume but increasing to a very loud volume to simulate the actual event noise, to get the pet used to hearing noises which may otherwise cause distress.

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