As we head into the warmer months, we have lots of fun things to look forward to: long weekends (hopefully at the cottage!), lingering on the patio, and of course – holidays to celebrate! For some of you, the thought of Victoria Day and Canada Day celebrations might make you cringe on behalf of your dog, because of course, these holidays come with fireworks. Add in thunderstorm season, and we see a lot of puppies shaking in their boots! We don’t always know why our dogs are afraid of these loud noise events. Sometimes, there is an initial impetus and the fear can develop from that point forward, but they can also develop randomly, in any breed and at any age. We often consider these fears to be phobias, because they are irrational responses – ‘fear’ is a normal response to a threatening situation that are designed to protect the animal from harm, whereas with a ‘phobia’, the dog has not necessarily experienced any physical trauma associated with the situation, yet they have a profound and excessive psychological response to the stimulus. Phobias can increase in intensity over time, especially if the stimulating events are frequent.
How Do I Know if My Dog Has a Phobia?
Like so many things, fears and phobias exist on a spectrum – from very mild to very severe. Some dogs may tremble a little and hide at your feet during a thunderstorm; these dogs are often ‘consolable’ with quiet, calm re-assurance. This would be considered a relatively mild fear situation, since communication with the animal can have a positive effect. Conversely, dogs with phobias are decidedly IN-consolable: There may be shaking, pacing, drooling, whining, and hiding behaviors, and it seems that you just can’t get THROUGH to the dog when they’re in that state. These are the dogs that are truly phobic.
What Can I Do About My Dog’s Fear/Phobia?
First, it’s VERY important not to coddle your dog when he is in an anxious, fearful, unstable state of mind, whatever the cause. Dogs are extremely sensitive to human energy; they are like mirrors for our state of mind: if you become anxious, nervous, and feel badly for your dog when he begins to display fearful behavior, chances are you are only going to feed MORE into his negative state of mind and help perpetuate (and maybe even intensify!) the behavior. Our dogs look to us for guidance and structure, and this is especially true with respect to emotion. Consider this with respect to what was mentioned above, regarding consolable dogs: This type of ‘consolation’ should be delivered in a calm, assertive and re-assuring manner, as opposed to feeling badly for the dog. You want to project the kind of energy you want your dog to display! For truly phobic dogs, some other techniques may useful. First, provide the type of space the dog seems to want – often, it is dark and quiet, so let him hide under the bed in the quiet, dark room that he seems to prefer. If possible, it can sometimes help to ‘distract’ phobic dogs, especially if you can start BEFORE the noise event, with white noise – turn up the TV, and have a loud, upbeat conversation; and remember to remain assertive and in control. If you are worried, even if you’re pretending not to be – your dog will know it! As well, it’s important to closely supervise these dogs if they’re outdoors – it is not uncommon for a noise-phobic dog to unexpectedly bolt if he’s outside and not on-leash. Some more severely-affected dogs may benefit from pharmacologic intervention. Melatonin is a natural relaxation supplement that has efficacy for some dogs, and can be found at most health food stores. Beyond that, you may discuss different medication options with your veterinarian, such as diazepam or alprazolam. If your dog has a noise phobia, and you need help managing it – don’t hesitate to call your vet to discuss options, both behavioral and pharmacological!