An alarming percentage of city dog owners complain to veterinarians regularly about the phobic panic behaviour exhibited by their pets during thunderstorms and fireworks displays. Thunderstorms are obviously the most severe and frequent in the highveld region and fireworks will never be banned due to economic reasons and the pleasure it affords certain people. Fireworks have nothing to do with culture or religion as the latter were in existence long before pyrotechnics were created – it is purely for human gratification and narcissism.
To illustrate how perverse some people are one has to witness the dog owners appealing for sedatives for their pets while they, themselves, are preparing pyromaniac events on their residential property. These pet owners know full well that their dogs suffer with hysteria yet are still prepared to go ahead with the fireworks purely for narcissistic thrills. The tranquilisers may, perhaps, make these people feel a degree of caring and responsibility by using veterinary medication during the stressful events, however, the veracity of the arrangement places the suffering animal in a state of being able to still experience the trauma but physically incapable of escaping from it. This, basically, means the dog still suffers the sound sensitivity phobia but cannot do anything about it. It is far better to allow the dog to seek refuge and try to cope in a natural manner.
Thunderstorms are an act of nature beyond anyone’s control but dogs can be taught to cope with the sound and feeling of the thunder and lightning. Puppies born at a particular time of the year when they are in their imprinting socializing period as the storms commence usually tolerate the sounds into adulthood. By virtue of being eight to twenty weeks of age in early summer the impressionable pup must be exposed to the elements in a positive manner in order to deal with the experience through adulthood. While there may be genetic sound sensitivity problems amongst Border Collies and Staffordshire Bull Terriers most puppies can be taught to confront thunder, lightning and firecrackers without any fear.
Puppy socialization classes are a forum during which this approach should be taught. Dog owners need to be educated on how to behave with their pets under all circumstances. Putting on a raincoat, adorning an umbrella and taking the dog out into the rain and turning it into a pleasurable adventure is an important consideration. This will, obviously, not be done with lightning in the air. It is at the moments when lightning, thunder and fireworks are at their most severe that every dog owner should act as a mentor to their pet by being totally calm, confident and unresponsive. Most pets feeling the stress of the sounds and changes in the atmosphere will look up to their owners for reassurance as to whether the phenomena being detected are safe and non-threatening. It is the manner in which most pet owners behave which turns many animals into blithering sound phobic idiots.
Many people become anthropomorphic about the peal of thunder and the crack of lightning by creating, in their own neurotic minds, the idea that their animals need to be protected from awful sounds and events. Instead of leaving the pets to their own devices and conveying an aura of calmness and confidence most people teach their animals to panic by herding them indoors, talking in tones of distress and hurriedness and putting them on the couch and patting them while appealing to the dogs to be calm and that everything is going to be alright.
With this attitude nothing will be alright. The dog has been, inadvertently, taught, by its owner, to be fearful in the event of a storm or pyrotechnics display.
It has been proved that most of these panicky hounds are in dire stress because of their owners. People, themselves, have a distorted attitude towards these sound sensitive events and are completely ignorant as to how they should behave when there is lighting, thunder or firecrackers.
The worst approach that any owner can convey is to reward the dog for being neurotic. However, this is what most people do. Instead of ignoring the angst and walking away from the animal people are too inclined to incorrectly anticipate a potential fear and plant the phobic seed by herding the dog away from the activities, speaking in panic-stricken tones, comforting the dog, patting it and sheltering it away from the sound triggers. People become nervous on behalf of their dogs inadvertently teaching a tolerant pet to enter a new world of anxiety. This becomes a learnt behaviour. Any new dog entering the same domicile will rapidly learn to be fearful of sounds from the already phobic pets.
One has to respect the fact that genetic sound sensitivity does exist in certain breeds and individuals. If this is the case breeders should take responsibility and cease from propagating the serious lifetime stress by sterilizing such animals and altering the reproduction strategy of the particular breed lines by breeding-out the problem. The percentage of dogs in this category is very small as it is expressed at a very young age. The vast majority of sound sensitive dogs are taught to be so by the people at home or other afflicted dogs within the same environment.
While sensitive dogs detect the changes in air pressure and electrostatics ages before people are aware of an impending storm the anxiety behaviour patterns may already be manifested by panting, vocalizing, salivating, pacing and hiding, long before any human being is aware of the clouds overhead.
Some observant owners will learn, over a period of time their dogs are warning them inclement weather is on its way. Animals still have the instincts and senses which humans lost thousands of years ago.
Almost every dog owner in a frenzy about their pet being in a frenzy admitted that they tend to cosset and comfort their scared pet. Those who complied with the advice of ignoring the behaviour or diverting the dog’s attention from the source of sound sensation by shouting a command with the perfect simultaneous timing of prodding the dog with their fingers as an aversion found immediate and marked improvements in the level of stress. This principle of distraction with assertive body language very rapidly alters the dog’s mind-set and reaps rewards in many cases.
The use of psychotropic medication acquired from veterinarians for obsessive compulsive behaviour, panic attacks or phobias does sometimes produce results provided the dog is on permanent medication throughout the rainy and fireworks period. Many people misunderstand the principles of treating dogs. One cannot administer these scheduled drugs at sunset and expect the dog to tolerate a storm after supper. The body needs to be primed over weeks in order to tolerate the sounds to which they are normally sensitive.
The recent advent of thunder jackets has helped quite a few brontophobic dogs. The garment fits snugly around the chest, is easily adorned, available in various sizes, tied down with Velcro straps and has the effect of earthing the animal against the electrostatics in the atmosphere while acting as a firm comforter.
Some pet owners have attained a degree of success with combinations of purportedly effective products. The use of oral calmative agents, usually a derivative from a Japanese potato, over a lengthy period of time, simultaneously plugging an appeasing pheromone diffuser in to the electrical supply while all windows and doors are closed for maximum effect and topping this all up with a body bandage to offer the fearful dog the feeling of confidence and safety.
If pet owners would only give thought and come to terms with the reality that their behaviour and interaction creates, reinforces and conditions dogs to be permanent psycho cases then maybe the animal world will be a better place in which to exist if they sought advice from reputable professionals such as animal behaviourists, dog trainers and veterinary ethologists. It is recommended that one observes, absorbs and applies the highly successful approaches shown by Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic Channel on Animal Planet. He is not just an animal rehabilitator he has a natural god-given talent in communicating with dogs. Learn from him. Let him be your mentor – for the sake of your own pet dogs!
People must learn to avoid pre-empting situations and assuming that their pets are going to suffer with fireworks, lightning and thunder. If every owner would sedate themselves heavily, or become inebriated with alcohol, when the terrifying sounds emanate from the heavens the dogs will obviously, at some stage, look up to the human members of the household for reassurance and guidance as mentors in a threatening situation and finding them fast asleep or completely relaxed then perhaps no dog will ever learn to be neurotic.
More dog owners should tranquilise themselves during storms and pyrotechnics, instead of their pets; then, everyone will become sound tolerant.