Title: Thunderstorms and Fireworks
Author: Melvyn Greenberg
Date: 2007/12/04

Dogs will never know that Thor was the god of thunder and lightning, the ruler of the sky in Norse mythology. Dogs will also never know about the Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes and Robert Catesby when they tried to blow up the English Houses of Parliament in November 1605.

About 15% of dogs of dogs suffer from one or more sound sensitivities with the majority of pets showing symptoms after 12 months of age. Fear can be learnt. Fear can be inherited. Fear can be inherited. In many instances, with the experienced professional au courant, sound sensitive pups can be detected at 7-8 weeks and avoided.
There is a definite genetic trait, amongst some breeds, towards the intense fear of loud noises. The most predisposed by far are the Border Collies and Staffordshire Bull Terriers. The German Shepherd Dog and Maltese run almost neck and neck in second place but still far behind the afore-mentioned breeds. Dog breeders should take responsibility and try to selectively breed these fears out of their genetic pools.

Of all the noise phobias affecting dogs, 95% of cases are attributed to brontophobia (fear of lightning and thunder) and fireworks. While the former is natural and eternal it is exacerbated in the Highveld region. A dog in the Karoo e.g. may not see rain for half its life-span. Fireworks will never be banned by the authorities with all the attempts been made to protest against the man-made noise pollution.

If one searches all the literature content on animal behaviour and veterinary ethology there is no reference to the problems that pet dogs experience during the unique South African Highveld combination of fireworks and thunderstorms in the summer. We are alone in this struggle.

Accepting these permanent natural and unnatural intermittent events as a way of life it is advisable that people realize from the time of the adoption of a puppy that they can do something about desensitizing their pet during the impressionable stages of puppyhood. There is a means to an end by subscribing to puppy socialization classes when the young dogs are between 8 and 20 weeks of age.
The reputable puppy trainers will let off firecrackers and cap guns during the lessons when the focus is on canine interaction and play. Pups learn to tolerate some of the inevitable sounds through regular exposure during the classes instilling the desired response to noise. It is important that dog owners understand how to guide their canine companions through these noise experiences without indicating panic or fear from their behaviour. A calm owner creates a calm dog.
Fireworks are no longer small rockets, Catherine wheels and jumping jacks which used to affect a small percentage of dogs in the past but never to the degree that the modern “hand grenades” and “bombs” have on both man and animal.
Fireworks are normally planned and through veterinary consultation dog-specific sedatives may be acquired for those non-adaptable individual dogs to sleep through the pyromaniac periods.

Thunderstorms are a different kettle of fish altogether, in response, although many dogs panic with lightning, thunder and pyrotechnics.
DOGS DETECT THUNDERSTORMS LONG BEFORE ANY PERSON CAN so sedation is hopeless. It is problematic to dose tranquillisers while the dog is in a phobic state of mind. The only real control is:

  1. Prophylaxis. During puppyhood pet owners should put on their raincoats, open up their umbrellas and go out in to the rainstorm and revel in the weather with their dogs, playing games, giving titbits, to share the environmental experience in a positive and assertive way, instead of being comforted indoors, patting the pet and rewarding the dog for being neurotic. The pet looks up to their owners for guidance and reassurance. This is a good time to do it.
  2. Continuing education. Do this repeatedly to further habituate the dog in case it becomes counter-conditioned to a fearful state
  3. The dog that already harbours the brontophobic disorder must be on psychotropic medication throughout the stormy season. The drugs prescribed by veterinarians may vary from naturopathic, homeopathic to scheduled products indicated for obsessive compulsive behaviour, panic attacks and phobic situations, similar to those prescribed for people. There is no wonder drug for all dogs. Trial and error will determine which medicine or combination of medicines will have the desired long term effect without sedation. Costs can be prohibitive as the canine species may require double to ten times the human dose to receive reasonable relief. There is no guarantee that every dog will respond to treatment.

Where the brontophobia is worse than pyrotechnics for the city dwelling canine is that the changes in the atmosphere are detected well in advance of the storm. Ions in the atmosphere, air pressure changes, sound waves bouncing up against the clouds, electrostatics and the various thunder sounds, kilometers and hours away, have already “charged up” the dog long before people can do anything about the fear. For these reasons the sound sensitive dogs have to be on permanent medication so that they are physiologically “prepared” for the noise and electrostatic onslaught. The brontophobic dog gets a fair amount of relief by hiding under the kitchen sink where there is water and copper pipes. It seems to “earth” the pet. Maybe some inventor can find a contraption that can be fitted to earth the dogs affected by the atmospheric changes and are not sound phobic?!

The storm and fireworks sounds are amplified in the high density townhouses. The dog’s hearing is four times more acute than man. The truth of the matter is that these panicky pets truly suffer under the circumstances of fireworks, lightning and thunder. The symptoms can vary from hyperventilation, trembling and hiding to jumping through glass windows, trashing furniture, scaling walls and running until they cannot run any further or a place of refuge is found.


Behaviour Tip

When a dog is presented for behaviour problems to a veterinary ethologist or accredited animal behaviourist it will usually have multiple disorders...

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