Fear responses or phobias can develop from either a single event or continued exposure where the dog cannot escape. Responses may vary from a generalized pacing or panting to a more agitated response which may become destructive or panicked.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning are used to retrain the dog. Basic obedience commands with appropriate rewards and responses are essential. The aim is to achieve a calm state consistently on command before starting any desensitization. Begin in situations where the fear stimulus is not present, so that you can maintain control and ensure that the dog will perform the wanted behaviour when expected. Associate training with favoured treats and rewards in a favourite location in the house, particularly where a storm or other loud noises may not be as evident. Then during the storm, use your rewards, location and commands to maintain a quiet environment. It is important not to punish the dog during a fearful episode – this will only serve to reinforce the negative effects. Try to maintain a calm attitude to help calm you pet and decrease the anxiety. It is also important to try to ignore any fearful behaviour, since this may be observed as a reward for the unwanted behaviour.
In order to desensitize your dog, it is advantageous to introduce the stimulus at a low enough level that it does not invoke the fear response, while encouraging your basic training again. Gradually increase the stimulus – i.e. a tape recording of loud noises, music with a heavy beat – while training the dog to lie quietly in that favourite area to receive a treat.
If your pet is having problems with fear of thunderstorms, please discuss the best approach with your veterinarian prior to attempting any of the above suggestions. Drug therapy may be a useful adjunct in treating these problems – please contact the clinic to discuss what may work best.