Loud noises, such as fireworks, thunder and traffic, are one of the most frequently cited fears given by dog owners. It is natural for some dogs to be fearful of loud noises, but some dogs are so traumatized by thunder, fireworks and other loud noises that they are completely unable to function.
Dogs that display excessive fears or phobias such as these can be a danger to themselves and those around them. Dogs may manifest their fear in self-destructive ways, like slinking under the couch or the bed and getting stuck, for instance. They may also react in ways that are destructive to the home, such as urinating or defecating on the carpet, chewing up favorite items, or barking incessantly. These reactions are often worse when the owner is not at home.
One thing that is hard for many dog owners to understand is that soothing or stroking a dog that is displaying fear is exactly the wrong thing to do. While it is natural to try to calm a fearful dog, to the dog you are rewarding it for being afraid. The dog likes the sound of your voice, likes your petting, and concludes that he has done the right thing by acting afraid. This only makes a bad situation worse.
The best strategy when the dog displays fear when there is a thunderstorm or a fireworks display is to simply ignore the dog. It is of course important to watch the dog to make sure he does not hurt himself, but otherwise just ignore him and let him work through the fear on his own. When you go away, be sure to make sure there is nothing the dog can get stuck under, since fireworks or a thunderstorm can pop up at any time.
A dog that is severely afraid of thunderstorms and other load noises may need to be confined to a single room, or even a crate, for a period of time. After the dog feels safe in his “den”, he may be able to deal with his fears a little better. It can be quite a struggle to teach a dog not to be afraid of thunderstorms, firecrackers and other such noises, but it is important that the dog at least be able to control his fears without being destructive to himself or his environment.
Much as magicians use sleight of hand to hide their tricks, so dog owners practice the art of distraction to take their dog’s mind off of their fear. For instance, if your dog is afraid of thunderstorms and you know one is on the way, gather some of your dog’s favorite toys and get ready for the misdirection.
Of course, your dog will probably know the thunderstorm is on the way before you do. When you see your dog start to display fear, take a few of his favorite toys and try to get him to play. Very fearful dogs may be reluctant to play, but it is important to try nevertheless. Often a few treats can be a good distraction as well. Try buying one of those balls that you can fill with treats or biscuits, and encourage your dog to chase it.
Try playing with your dog every time a thunderstorm is in the forecast. This can start to implant good memories, and these can sometimes replace the fear memories that caused the dog to be afraid of thunderstorms in the first place.
Desensitizing your dog’s fear
Desensitization is a highly effective way to deal with phobias and fears in humans, and it can be very effective for dogs and other animals as well. Desensitization involves introducing the dog to small amounts of whatever noises frighten him.
For instance, if the dog is afraid of thunder, try tape recording your next thunderstorm and play it back slowly when the dog is relaxed. Reward the dog for not showing fear responses. If he does show fear responses, do not comfort or soothe him but just ignore him.
This kind of desensitization training can be remarkably effective for some dogs, but it will take lots of patience and hard work. Fears of thunder and fireworks are not always easy to cure.