Dear Lisa: My 2-year old Belgian Tervuren is traumatized by thunderstorms. I know this is a common problem, but this particular dog remains fearful of the outdoors for days or even weeks after hearing thunder. I'd prefer to treat this problem through behavior therapy rather than drugs. Do you recommend for desensitizing her, and is this something a dog owner could try? --Terrorized by Thunderstorms in Tacoma
Fear of loud noises, including thunderstorms, is a common complaint I hear from dog owners. Pets can develop sound sensitivities usually between the ages of two and four. And they tend to get worse with age, sometimes not even showing up until very late.
Dogs who behave in this way are usually triggered by some external force. They may know that the impending storm is approaching by sensing such things as the increasing wind, darkening sky and the drop in barometric pressure as the weather front approaches. They know it's coming and anticipate "impending doom" which makes them nervous to all sounds.
Some behaviorists will tell you to try a desensitization program where you gradually introduce the "fear" noise at a very low volume and then increase the volume and praise when they behave appropriately. This takes a long time to implement and a lot of patience on the part of the owner. You won't know it worked until someday your dog isn't afraid anymore.
Others may suggest trying to divert your dog's attention to the "impending doom" by playing a fun game with her at the right moments to turn the bad triggers into good triggers.
Your veterinarian may suggest you treat the dog with some kind of tranquilizer or go the more natural route with herbal mixtures. Sometimes these work, sometimes they don't. But the best "cure" I have found I learned at a seminar by Pat Hastings, a respected AKC dog show judge, breeder and handler. She swears by this and I have seen it work on one of my friend's dog who used to jump into the bathtub during a thunderstorm and quiver. Get yourself a bottle of peppermint oil from the health food store. When the storm is approaching put a drop or two of oil on the bottom of each foot, right on the pad. While no one knows why this works, once the oil is on for a bit, the dog no longer cares about the thunderstorm. And she'll smell very nice!
If you have a question, send it to Lisa at AskLisa@AKC.org and she may select it for a future column. Due to the high volume of questions she cannot offer individual responses.