The relationship between dogs and humans is unique in the animal kingdom. Dogs can sense human emotions, read facial expressions, follow instructions and have a special skill for knowing exactly how you feel.
Like humans, dogs can also suffer from conditions like anxiety, depression and a range of phobias, including a fear of storms.
In his book Pets on the Couch, US academic Dr. Nicholas Dodman concluded physiological responses to anxiety are similar in humans and animals.
“The amygdala, the brain’s Grand Central Terminal for both fear and anxiety, lights up on PET imaging scans in anxious and fearful animals and people.
The long-term memory centre, the hippocampus, is also involved in propagating the response. Connections between the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus facilitate release of stress hormones, like epinephrine and cortisol.
Epinephrine increases heart rate, blood pressure, and the calibre of the respiratory passages and endorphins are released in reaction to fear.”
Canine winter storm anxiety
Research indicates around 40% of Australia’s 5.1 million pet dogs have some form of noise anxiety and it can take just one bad experience to instill a lifelong fear of thunderstorms.
Generally, dogs that fear storms struggle with one or more other forms of anxiety, such as separation anxiety, social anxiety and canine noise aversion.
The breed, age, sex and history of the dog will impact the likelihood of storm anxiety with female, neutered males and re-homed dogs most likely to be thunder phobic.
Dogs have superior hearing to humans, and they can detect distant thunder and changes in the barometric pressure long before a human and their reaction can often be confused with bad behaviour.
Understanding the symptoms of canine anxiety will avoid unnecessary scolding and provide an opportunity to take early action to relieve stress before the storm hits.
Symptoms of canine storm anxiety include:
- Lowered ears and tail, wide eyes.
- panting and drooling;
- whining or howling;
- involuntary indoor urination; and
- destructive behaviour like clawing to escape.
Relieving storm anxiety symptoms
Experts agree that patting or cuddling a fretful, whining dog during a thunderstorm will only reinforce their anxiety and fuel their fear.
Providing a calm, comfortable space with music or TV for background noise and distractions like a favourite toy, a treat or a game can discourage the behaviour. Provide a covered area, extra bedding and weigh down food and water bowls for dogs that live outside.
While there is no miracle cure for storm anxiety, there are a number of techniques that can help a dog cope with fear, however it takes time, consistency, and patience. Animal behaviorists recommend a combination of behaviour modification and fear desensitization works best with most dogs..
Behaviour modification discourages bad habits and rewards good ones; however, the universal consensus is that using positive reinforcement such as treats, toys, favourite beds, games and verbal praise works best when the dog is calm.
Desensitization gradually reduces a dog’s reaction to loud noises. Recordings of storms or fireworks are played at a low volume and slowly increased while the dog is given positive reinforcement in the form of play, toys, or treats.
The drawback to desensitization is it allows for control of only one aspect of storms—loud noises—and therefore cannot be used to acclimate a dog to the other negative stimuli such as static electricity or changes in barometric pressure.
Behaviour modification and desensitization are designed to change the dog’s perspective of storms from fear to comfort by using praise, treats, and toys so the dog associates stormy conditions with positive rather than negative things.
To reinforce this training, calm behaviour should continue to be rewarded as the seasons change.