Help with Storms, Separation Anxiety and other phobias

By Dr. Karen Becker

If your dog briefly startles at loud sounds or hangs back when approached by a stranger, chances are he's exhibiting a normal stress response that is entirely healthy. A short-term reaction to a stressful or unfamiliar event allows your dog to prepare to fight or take flight if necessary. In the wild, the fight-or-flight response keeps animals alive in the face of threats to their survival.

Unfortunately, in today's world, maladaptive stress responses – chronic, long-term anxiety and phobias -- are a growing problem for companion dogs. These fear-based conditions often take the form of separation anxiety, storm and/or noise phobia, or aggression.

A chronic, prolonged fear response can cause both physical and emotional disease processes that can potentially shorten a dog's life and negatively impact quality of life. Chronic stress can depress your dog's immune system, putting him at higher risk for opportunistic infections. It can trigger the development of compulsive behaviors, and it can also alter blood flow to vital organs.

Signs of Maladaptive Stress Reactions in Dogs

A dog can be assumed to be anxious and/or fearful when she exhibits certain behaviors. These include: Crying or whining, Drooling, Ears held back, Hiding, Lip licking, Looking away (from a threat), Loos of appetite, Pacing, Panting, Shaking, Tucking tail, Vigilance and Yawning.

In addition to these behaviors, if your dog has a storm phobia, during thunderstorms she may also tremble, try to stay close to you, engage in destructive behavior, or try to harm herself.

It's important to understand that storm phobias differ significantly from other similar fear-based conditions. Whereas there are generally just one or two triggers for dogs with separation anxiety or general noise phobia, storm-phobic dogs can react to any number of storm-related triggers, including the boom of thunder or the crack of lightning, the sound of wind or pouring rain, darkening skies, changes in barometric pressure, and smells that precede or accompany a storm.

Storm phobias are a class of noise phobias. A noise phobia is defined as a sudden and profound, extreme response to noise, manifested as intense, active avoidance; escape; or anxiety behaviors associated with the activities of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Some dogs react to noise phobias by freezing and withdrawing, while others respond by crashing through windows or chewing through restraints or enclosures. While the former behavior may seem less extreme, the fact is both reactions indicate profound suffering and damage to nerve cells.

If your dog has separation anxiety, common behaviors may include the need to be within a few feet of you at all times; frantic greetings, whether you've been out of sight a few minutes or several hours; a noticeable mood change when she senses you're preparing to leave the house; and performing behaviors while you're gone she doesn't do in your presence.

Treatment Option: Avoidance

Helping your dog avoid the trigger(s) of his anxiety or phobia is very important. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to do. Most owners of storm-phobic dogs can't simply pick up and move to a location with temperate weather. Often the trigger for a noise-phobic dog is a normal, everyday sound like a kitchen blender, a vacuum cleaner, or the garbage truck that comes down the street twice a week.

If your pet has a thunderstorm phobia, you can consider making a safe room, which is a place your dog can escape to when a storm is approaching – whether or not you're home. The goal is to limit her exposure to as many aspects of thunderstorms as possible. The room should have no windows, or covered windows so the storm can't be seen. If necessary, soundproofing wallboard can muffle outside noise. Put a solid-sided crate in the room with the door left open, along with a bit of food, water, treats and toys.

For a noise-phobic dog, you may try leading or removing him to a quiet room in your home and either leave him alone there to self-soothe (as long as he's not frantic), or stay quietly with him. A silent, still environment can often provide relief. Some phobic dogs will seek out dark, quiet corners on their own where they can calm themselves, so consider providing a darkened room, a closet floor, or space under a table or desk for a frightened pet. The goal is to give your dog a secure spot that helps him calm himself.

Sometimes playing soothing or calming music to help reduce the impact of sound stressors can also be of benefit to these dogs (as long as playing the music doesn't correlate to the stressor, so if you're using music to help drown out scary noises, use the calming CD during non-stressful times of the day as well). 

Treatment Option: Desensitization

Desensitization involves exposing a dog to an anxiety-producing trigger to a level at which the fear response is extinguished. For example, if your dog were afraid of strangers, desensitization would include having a stranger come close enough so that your dog knows he or she is there, but far enough away so your pet doesn't exhibit a fear response. The distance between your dog and the stranger is then gradually decreased, ideally as your dog slowly approaches the stranger. Allowing the dog to make the approach rather than the stranger helps your pet feel safe and in control.

Desensitization of a storm-phobic dog involves using a CD with reproduced storm sounds. Again, it's best to do this during times of the year when actual storms are few and far between and not only when an actual storm is occurring.

Unfortunately, desensitization isn't always as effective with storm phobias as it is with other types of anxiety disorders. That's because it's difficult to mimic all the various triggers that set off a fear response in a storm-phobic pet – in particular changes in barometric pressure, static electricity, and whatever scents dogs notice with an impending change in the weather. In addition, desensitization has to be done in each room of the house, because a new coping skill your dog learns in the living room will be forgotten in the kitchen. These problems make desensitization more of a challenge in treating storm phobias.

If your dog has separation anxiety, you'll want to desensitize her to all the sights and sounds involved when you're preparing to leave the house. In other words, go through all the motions of leaving without leaving. Since you probably don't know exactly which cues your dog is reacting to, you'll need to observe her carefully and also make a mental list of your preparing-to-leave activities. These will include things like turning lights on or off, putting on shoes or a coat, adjusting the thermostat, picking up a briefcase or purse, jingling car keys, walking to the door, opening the door, and so forth.

Start with the first preparing-to-leave activity you normally perform and do it over and over – again, without actually leaving the house -- until your pup no longer takes much notice of that particular action. Then add the next activity. Then the next and so on, until you're able to leave the house for at least an hour and your dog remains calm while you're gone. This can be a long, tedious process, but it's often very effective.

Treatment Option: Counterconditioning/Behavior Modification

Counterconditioning involves consistently and repeatedly pairing a negative trigger with a positive one, until your dog makes a positive association. For example, if your dog exhibits a fear response each time you turn on the vacuum cleaner, offer him a treat each time you turn it on. The goal is to condition him to associate a treat with the noise of the vacuum cleaner.

Behavior modification can be useful for storm-phobic dogs. Ask your dog to perform a command he's familiar with and reward him if he does. This activity distracts both of you -- your dog from his fear of the storm, and you from the temptation to inadvertently reinforce your pet's phobic behavior by petting and soothing him while he's showing anxiety.

Another type of behavior modification involves getting your dog busy with a more pleasant activity than storm watching. Play a game with him or give him a recreational bone to gnaw on. One of my favorite ways to distract pups is by nose work. Use your dog's natural senses to divert his brain waves, or have fun with Dr. Yin's Manners Minder. Be aware that if your pet's response to storms is intense, you may not be able to engage him in another activity early in his treatment program, especially if he correlates the activity to the scary storm.

Additional Tips to Help Anxious, Fearful Dogs

For dogs with separation anxiety:

  • Leave your dog with an article of clothing or blanket with your scent on it.
  • Leave a treat-release toy for your dog to focus on in your absence. Place small treats around the house for her to discover, along with her favorite toys.
  • Add a flower essence blend like Separation Anxiety from Spirit Essences to her drinking water. This works wonders for some dogs. And put on some soothing doggy music before you leave.
  • Invest in a DAP collar or diffuser for your dog. D.A.P.™ is an acronym for Dog Appeasing Pheromone and is designed to have a calming affect on dogs.
  • Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise, playtime, mental stimulation and TLC. The more full her life is when you're around, the calmer she'll be when you're not.

For dogs with noise and/or storm phobia:

  • Play calm, soothing music ( before a possible stressor occurs. This may relax your dog and have the added bonus of drowning out distressing noises.
  • Try putting gentle, continuous pressure on your pet to calm her. If your dog will allow it, try leaning gently on or against her without petting or stroking. If this is helping your pup, you'll feel her muscles begin to relax. If instead she seems to grow more anxious, this isn't a technique that will be helpful for her.
  • If your dog seems to respond well to pressure applied to her body, there are wraps available ( that many pet owners and veterinarians find extremely helpful.
  • Ttouch is a specific massage technique that can help anxious pets.
  • Consult your holistic vet about homeopathic, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Bach Flower Remedies that could be helpful in alleviating your dog's stress. Some products I use, always in conjunction with behavior modification include Calm Shen, homeopathic aconitum or Hyland's Calms ForteBach Rescue Remedy or other similar remedies depending on the animal, Spirit Essence Storm Soother, and OptiBalance Fear & Phobias Formula.
  • Calming nutraceuticals and herbs that can be of benefit include holy basil, l-theanine, rhodiola, ashwagandha, GABA, 5-HTP, and chamomile. Consult your holistic vet about which option is right for your pet
  • The essential oil of lavender has also been proven to reduce a dog's stress response. I recommend placing a few drops on your dog's collar or bedding before a stressor occurs, if possible, or diffuse the oil around your house for an overall calming effect.

* This article appeared on Mercola Healthy Pets 2/12/14

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