This one's a doozy, and very timely.
Mayberry Mom writes:
"It's almost the 4th of July, and in our state fireworks are legal. That is very bad news for our pup. She is terrified of the sound (thunderstorms too). Rescue Remedy doesn't work. Should we get an rx from our vet or... anything else we can do for her?
She is a 9-ish year old shepherd mix."
Mayberry Mom isn't the only person to have asked this question. I've received a number of emails with this same question - how to help a dog be less fearful of loud noises like thunder or fireworks. Noise phobias are a fairly common but extremely tough topic to cover. Every year dogs are injured or go missing after jumping through windows and screen doors trying to escape the horrible noise. With the Fourth of July coming up soon and summer thunderstorms popping up constantly I wish I had an easy solution for you owners of dogs who have these fears. But I don't. Training a dog to be less fearful takes time and consistent training.
What owners like Mayberry need is an intensive desensitizing program for their dogs. Time playing CDs of thunder and fireworks noises, enlisting the help of friends and family to make noises outside of the house (because the thunder and the fireworks? They usually come from outside, not inside), and many, many treats.
(I'm being very simplistic when I say this. It takes a bit more than what I just very quickly described.)
In the interest of full disclosure I will tell you that I have never had to desensitize any of my dogs to loud noises. Most of my dogs came to me as puppies and as soon as I got them home I'd run the vacuum constantly, I'd play loud music, slam doors, and I never made a big deal out of thunder storms other than distributing the occasional treat. I was also lucky that I got unflappable, "bomb-proof" dogs. Some dogs are just more high-strung than others, mine just happen to be very laid back. Lucky me, not so lucky you. But I have worked with a number of dog owners with this same problem. If you have a thunder or fireworks phobic dog you are not alone.
Fear is a very strong emotion, stronger than almost all others, and what a lot of owners don't realize is that they're actually teaching their dogs to be fearful in these situations. Think about it, if your dog shows even the littlest amount of fear when a thunderstorm roles around what do you do? Pet the dog and tell him it's okay? Ooh, poor baby, you're scared? Uh uh. Babying your dog when they're fearful only acts as a reinforcement for that fear. It flies in the face of everything we humans, especially parents, understand when it comes to helping the ones we love, but in this case you really need to think like a dog.
What you should do, for dogs who aren't too far gone, is treat a thunderstorm like it was a party or better yet like it was no big deal. Thunderstorm? What thunderstorm? Dog is calm? Throw him a cookie. A thunderstorm! That's pretty cool! Cookies for everyone! If your dog is getting coveted treats every time a loud noise happens there is a good chance he'll be looking forward to the next bang, pop or rumble.
Not every dog can be desensitized. Every dog is different and some just have a harder time than most, depending on their level of fear. Here's a great article at Clicker Solutions that you should check out. It will give you a taste of what you might be in for if your dog shows signs of noise phobia.
Here's another about that "babying" I mentioned earlier. I'll warn you, it's all about classical and operant conditioning but it's well worth the read. Bet you never even thought about how scientific dog training was, did you?
For the severely phobic dogs, talk to your veterinarian and explore some of the options out there for helping your dog. Sometimes a prescription is necessary. But beware of all the junk out there on the market for your scared dog because some of it is just that - junk. I've never heard of a DAP Diffuser, for instance, working for a truly phobic dog. Or Rescue Remedy for that matter. Maybe they work for a dog who just has a slight fear of noises, I don't really know. I'm all for holistic approaches to caring for our dogs, and I'm not a scientist or a veterinarian, but if your dog is truly and severely phobic you might want to think about something like Xanax until you can spend some time properly training him.
Here's some more reading for you - An interesting, and timely article about thunderstorm phobias in dogs from USA Today. With some very good tips on how to keep your dog safe during a thunderstorm.
Until your dog is either desensitized (as much as possible) or medicated, find a nice quiet place in the house for him to hang out in with you nearby displaying just how uninterested you are in the thunderstorm or fireworks. And stick to sparklers. They're much less noisy.
Books I love on this topic: