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The Do’s and Don’ts of Noise Phobias and Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Author: Dr. Nicole Fenner, DVM

Is your dog scared of thunderstorms?  Do they cower or pant and pace when they hear fireworks?  Have you ever come home to find your dog has chewed a hole in your wall?  Pet behavior problems are one of the most common causes for pets being relinquished to a shelter, or even worse, being put to sleep.

It is natural for a dog to become destructive or try to escape when they hear a startling noise like fireworks or thunder.  Often dogs become fearful of thunderstorms due to the combination of the sounds of thunder and rain, as well as the change in barometric pressure.  It is important to focus on easing their anxiety, and not to punish them for their behavior.  First, create a safe place for your dog to go when they are frightened.   Give your dog treats or food in that safe place so they will be rewarded for going there.   Next, try to distract your dog before they have the chance to get anxious.  Interest them in an activity that they normally love. Reinforce this with praise and treats, as well.  Third, you want to desensitize your pet to the things that make it fearful.  For example, play a recording with the sound of fireworks or thunder at a low volume that it does not induce fear.  While the recording is playing, give rewards such as playing a game with them, feeding them treats, or even feed them a meal.  Increase the volume at each session over several weeks as they become tolerant of the sounds.    

It is important that you do not reassure your dog when they are exhibiting fearful behavior by saying “it’s ok” or trying to hold or cuddle with your pet.  Instead, ignore the fearful behavior.  Often behaviors are an emotional response or panic with no rational thought, not intentional misbehavior.  Therefore it is important not to punish your dog for being afraid as punishment only makes them more fearful.   Avoid putting your dog in a crate during the noisy event as their fear may lead to injury as they try to escape.  Never force your dog to experience a situation that is causing fear.  They need to gradually be exposed to the fear causing event and praise them or reward them for positive responses.

Another common behavior problem in dogs is separation anxiety or fear of being left alone.  This can occur at any time, especially when a dog that is used to constant human companionship is left alone for the first time.  Further, it can occur following a traumatic event (in the dog’s mind) like boarding at a kennel or spending time at an animal shelter.  Even a change in the family’s routine or structure can cause a dog to exhibit separation anxiety.   Signs of separation anxiety include destructive behavior when left alone, following their owner from room to room when the owner is home, getting excited, depressed, or anxious when an owner is preparing to leave the house or does not want to spend time outdoors by themselves. 

There are some techniques that can be tried when a dog has mild separation anxiety.  Have a safe place for your pet to stay while you are gone such as a crate or small room.  Keep all arrivals and departures low key.  When arriving home ignore your dog for the first few minutes before calmly petting them.  Leave your dog an article of clothing that smells like you.  Establish a word or action to use every time you leave that tells the dog you will be returning.  The dog will associate a short absence with this word or action.  Additionally, playing a radio, leaving the television on, or giving the dog a toy or yummy treat can be done when leaving for short periods of time.  Practice this a few times and be sure to avoid doing the action if leaving for longer than the dog can tolerate.

For dogs with more severe separation anxiety, desensitization works best.  All in all, the goal is to get the dog used to being alone and not get upset when we do routines that indicate we are leaving.   For instance, start by performing normal departure activities like grabbing keys and putting on a coat but instead of leaving, sit down.  Keep repeating this step until the dog shows no distress at the departure activities.  The ultimate goal is to be able to leave the house for an extended period of time without setting off any anxious behavior.  This is a gradual, step-by-step process. 

Because changing a pet’s behavior can take a while and dogs with anxiety and fear can do serious damage to themselves or their home, there are times when medical therapy is necessary to reduce their anxiety and allow them to be more easily trained.  A good anti-anxiety medication should not sedate your dog, but reduce anxiety and fear.  Your veterinarian is the only person qualified to prescribe medication for your pet.  Do not give any over the counter or prescription medications.  Animals do not respond to medications the same way people do and certain medications are fatal for them to ingest.  Drug therapy alone will not fix the anxiety and phobia issues.  Behavior modification and medication together is the best approach.  A dog appeasing pheromone product may also be beneficial.  The one typically used by veterinarians is called Adaptil.  This comes in a spray and room diffuser.  Also, there is an Adaptil collar the dog can wear for longer lasting effect.  For noise phobias and other types of anxiety, Thundershirts can help to calm your dog.    These are shirts that when worn by your dog, apply gentle, constant pressure similar to swaddling an infant. 

Behavioral issues can be frustrating and stressful for you and your pet, but their emotional health is as important as their physical health.  A behavior consult with your veterinarian can help determine the best options to treat your pet’s anxiety.  For more information, contact Calvert Veterinary Center, 4100 Mountain Rd., Pasadena, MD  410-360-PAWS (7297).

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