Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid – Not!
Greetings, dear Bored Surfer, and welcome to another edition of BLOG blog!
Hooray! It’s October! This means (usually) pleasant weather, leaf peeping and Sam Adams’ best beer. October is also associated with large spiders, the discovery of America by Europeans, stock market plunges, overindulgence of tiny candy bars and a killer wearing a white Captain Kirk mask.
It also means thunderstorm season is (supposed to be) winding down. Fireworks are mostly dormant until New Year’s festivities. If you have a noise-aversive pet, you are (hopefully) enjoying a lull in the anxiety. I don’t want to ruin this relatively peaceful time, but I would like you to consider doing some homework in preparation for the next big bang season.
Some fears are well founded. It is perfectly reasonable to be afraid of things like the IRS and sewer clowns. Likewise, sudden loud noises are usually harbingers of ill events. Such sounds usually mean something bad happened, like your balloon popped or a tree fell in the woods and you were around to hear it, your gun went off unexpectedly during a safety demonstration or something is very, very wrong with your vehicle.
Noise phobia is on a very different scale. According to Britannica.com, a phobia is an extreme, irrational fear of a specific object or situation. Since anxiety is the primary symptom experienced by the sufferer, phobias are classified as anxiety disorders. They are thought to be learned emotional responses. Fear caused by the original inciting event is often generalized to similar situations. Noise aversions are also commonly associated with separation anxiety, but that is a topic for some future edition of BLOG blog.
Noise aversions are most commonly seen in canine companions, aka Thunderdogs (because neither firework fearers nor boomy looneys sounds as cool). While there are definitely some felines who are affected by this affliction, they seem to be in the minority, and the name Thundercats is associated with Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque aliens. Throughout this blog, I shall also refer to your pet as Thor, regardless of its species or gender, and regardless of the source of the particular loud noise that causes their anxiety. Even though I use the gender-neutral Thor in deference to the late, great Stan Lee and Thor’s reputed future portrayer, Natalie Portman, Marvel should not be considered the definitive source for Thor lore. Before Thor was the big buff beautiful blond buck of comic books, he was a prominent character in Norse (not Australian) mythology – to the extent that we still have a day named after him every week. He is the bearded, temperamental, redheaded god of thunder who rides across the sky in a chariot pulled by goats. Please note - goats seem an odd choice for a chariot power source, until you consider that the conveyance of Freya (the Norse goddess of love, beauty and prolific procreation for whom Friday was named) is a chariot pulled by cats.
If you are one of the many, many people who have a Thunderdog, you are aware of at least some of the signs. Most commonly, you would notice things like trembling, panting, hiding and/or hypersalivation. Some Thors also engage in destruction or excessive barking. There can also be issues with elimination – some dogs pee or poop in the house because they are afraid to go outside during loud events. You’re fortunate enough (at least I hope you are) to have indoor plumbing, so you are not expected to go outside during a thunderstorm to relieve yourself. During storm season (approximately the beginning of April to the end of September in the Northern Hemisphere) there are measures to take to help ease your Thor’s anxiety. These include nutraceuticals (Anxitane, Solliquin, Zylkene, Composure etc.) that can be given daily, often with an extra dose on stormy days. There are also calming pheromones (Adaptil for dog, Feliway for cats) that come in sprays, collars and diffusers. Some dogs respond well to compression garments (like a Thundershirt, not a corset) or anti-static electricity measures such as the Storm Defender cape (or rubbing them with dryer sheets, in some cases).
Your reaction to the noisy incident is also important. When they are unsure about a situation, dogs (and most cats) will “social reference”. This means they will look to their caregiver for cues and react in a manner similar to the person. Your calm demeanor (or lack thereof) will be evident in your dog’s response. Consoling your dog shouldn’t be your primary method of dealing with the phobia, but your serenity during the event is important. And never, never, never punish your pet for being afraid. It will make the anxiety worse.
Try to limit Thor’s exposure to the offending sights and sounds. Close the blinds (or shutters if you live in the South or black-out curtains if you live in the Great White North). Leave lights on to decrease the visibility of lightning (or firework) flashes. Provide a safe hiding spot, preferably in an interior room with no windows. Play calming background music or turn on a fan. I have seen references to using the ant races on your old TV (or TV static noise on YouTube) as soothing white noise. This obviously does not take into account the possibility of angry ghosts using it as a portal and necessitating your rescue by a small medium.
Your particular Thor may respond well to one or a combination of several of these measures. Depending on the severity of the phobic reaction, anti-anxiety medication from your vet may also be needed. Do not hesitate to ask your vet for help. I, for one, am well aware of the debilitating power of anxiety, and want to provide relief to all affected pets (and their owners by extension).
The above actions are meant to mitigate an anxiety attack. While helpful in the short term, it is much better for everyone involved if you can give Thor a whole new outlook on the exploding sky phenomenon. If you are up to the challenge of teaching your dog coping mechanisms to use during an aerial bombardment, consider the path of Desensitization (desensitisation if you want to practice your British accent) and Counterconditioning.
You are probably aware of the work of Ivan Pavlov. While collecting digestive secretions for his study of physiology, he noticed that his canine test subjects associated certain cues (people approaching e.g.) with the imminent arrival of food. The dogs quickly started drooling as soon as the sensed these cues, before the food was presented. He tried different signals (the bell is the most famous, but there is archival footage on YouTube one of his test subjects responding to a metronome) and got similar results. This became known as classical conditioning. Dr. Pavlov ended up with the groundwork for a new field of study, a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1904, an eponymous adjective and a generous supply of canine saliva.
Just as dogs naturally learn that a lab tech with a can opener means food, they also learn that dark skies and changes in atmospheric pressure (and perhaps electricity) mean a thunderstorm is likely to happen soon. We can’t change that. Our goal is to help your thunderdog to have a different response to the approaching storm. Instead of pacing and panting and shaking and drooling, we want Thor to relax in his safe place, have some snacks and maybe a nap. We also want her to do this whether or not you are home to give the command. It is a multi-step process, but if you are able to devote the time and effort to the training, you and Thor will be well rewarded.
The process is known as Desensitization and Counter conditioning. Desensitization is defined (by the Cambridge online dictionary) as “the process of causing someone to experience something, usually an emotion or pain, less strongly than before”. The basic idea is to expose the subject (in this case, Thor) to the fear-causing object or event (thunder) but at a level low enough that she doesn’t react in his usual hysterical fashion. Counterconditioning (according to dictionary.com) is “the extinction of an undesirable response to a stimulus through the introduction of a more desirable, often incompatible response”. This means that instead of pacing and panting during a storm, she is lounging comfortably and enjoying some delightful treats. It works best to use these concepts together. During this process, Thor needs to be exposed a noticeable but not panic-inducing amount of the Bad Thing. It is difficult (if not impossible) to make positive associations when you are in a state of panic.
There is a webinar on the Fear Free website (fearfreepets.com/resources/webinars). It’s called “Crash, Boom, Bang! Addressing Noise Aversion in Dogs” and I am borrowing quite extensively from it. Find the associated video demonstration of safe place training at vimeo.com/308935325/92980465b9
Part of the counterconditioning is “response substitution”. This involves interrupting the unwanted behavior in a non-confrontational way, followed by redirecting Thor to perform another incompatible behavior. Once Thor has completed the requested task, he is to be rewarded. For example, if Thor is pacing, have him sit or lie down, and them give her snackeys for doing so.
In order to develop long term coping skills, Thor needs to learn the concept of a safe place. Ultimately, Thor will need a special place to go when she gets anxious, and feels more secure when he gets there. It is also important that the safe spot is always accessible, so Thor can choose to go there anytime, for any reason. The safe spot should be soothing to all the senses. It should be dark, quiet, a comfortable temperature, enclosed, softly padded, away from noise and commotion, infused with calming pheromones, and smell like a beloved companion. A blanket fort would be a good approximation.
Thor needs to learn to associate the safe place with pleasant activities and relaxation. Start with a portable version - a bath mat or padded nap mat, for example, that only appears during the training sessions. You can also add pheromones (like Adaptil) and calming music to add to the soothing atmosphere. Start the training on a good weather day when fireworks and gunshots are out of season and perform the training in an area where Thor is relaxed and comfortable. Then, let wonderful things happen when she is on the mat, such as delicious food puzzles or treats hidden in a snuffle mat (if you’re not familiar with a snuffle mat, it is not a clump of hair harvested from Big Bird’s shaggy friend. Instead, it is a flat object with a bunch of fleece strips attached to it. You hide small treats or kibbles of dog food amongst the fleece pieces and the dog has to dig around with her snout to find the food.). When Thor is reliably going to the mat when it is made available, add a verbal cue such as “go hide” or “take cover” or “fire in the hole” and reward Thor for going to the mat on command. Repeat with the mat in different locations in your house and yard.
When Thor has mastered going to the safe place, it is time to add the desensitization component. This entails exposing Thor to gradually increasing levels of the offending sounds, without inciting panic. Be prepared for this to be a long, gradual process that will require frequent, regular training sessions for weeks or perhaps months. If you try to rush and expose the dog to too much too soon, you will undermine any progress you have made. If your schedule allows, do the training in long (30-45 min) sessions, instead of multiple short ones.
There is a wide array of thunderstorm, firework and even artillery sounds available on YouTube (Ironically, many of them claim to be for relaxation). There are also specially designed CDs you can purchase for the desensitization process.
Before proceeding with the desensitization process, test the thunder (or fireworks) noise (in the format of your choice) to make sure Thor does not react in a fearful fashion. Play it at a low volume in a neutral location without the safe place set up, and see if Thor can be exposed to the noise without getting anxious. If you are successful, add the sounds to the training sessions. If not successful, you need to find a less intense version of the sounds that does not incite a fearful response before proceeding.
Then repeat the safe place training, this time with the sound effects. Put the portable safe place in a spot you have used before, but not the spot that will be the definitive safe place. Set up the portable safe place and give your dog a delicious diversion (stuffed Kong toy or snuffle mat or something else that holds their interest) while you start the noxious noise recording at a low level. You want to gradually increase the volume, but only do so while your dog is relaxed. The goal is to keep the sound below the threshold that upsets Thor and then slowly, very slowly raise that threshold. If Thor starts showing signs of fear, anxiety or stress (such as slowing or stopping eating) the volume should be decreased immediately. Start each new training session with the recording at minimal volume and work up to higher levels each time. Perform the safe training with sounds in different locations throughout your house before putting the mobile safe place in the ultimate safe location – that spot that will become the permanent pillow fortress. When you are able to play the recording at high volume without upsetting Thor, the fortress should be made available at all times.
The last step is to teach Thor to go to the fortress when loud noises happen, without needing to be directed by a person. To do this, start with Thor near you, give cue to go to safe place and reward this behavior. Then, with Thor nearby, play the sound effects, give cue and reward when he goes to fortress. After a few repetitions, play the noise and then pause so Thor can go to the safe place without verbal encouragement and be rewarded for doing so. Even if Thor is not upset by the recorded noises, the sound itself becomes the cue to go to the safe spot, and she should respond in a similar fashion when the real sounds erupt.
Even after you have accomplished all these steps, the training is not complete. Desensitization can fade over time, so have refresher sessions (play the noxious noise, reward Thor for going to the fortress) once or twice a month. This will remind her that loud noises mean go to the happy place.
Whew. That was a lot of information and instructions, much of which did not lend itself to interesting tangents. Thank you for taking the first step by reading all that. Now you need to use your new-found knowledge for good. The cold, dark months are coming, Bored Surfer. Please use the time that you are housebound to prepare your Thor for future storms and fireworks.
I sincerely hope you have gleaned some useful information from my amusing musings, and that you and your beloved pet will be better equipped to cope when it sounds like the sky is falling.
Dr. Debbie Appleby