As we move into summer full swing we are approaching a part of the season that many dog owners dread. The opening salvo is the Fourth of July, and then insult is heaped on injury as thunderstorm season kicks off. There are a lot of people who have dogs that are afraid of loud noises who know exactly what I am talking about.
This is the time when our office starts getting the calls requesting tranquilizers for phobic dogs. There are some circumstances where a dog’s irrational fear very well may lead to serious injury or property damage. I once had a lovely 13 year old German Shepherd patient who become so frantic from the neighbors fireworks display she broke all her teeth chewing through the metal garage door and as she forced her way through the hole she made she caught her eyeball on a shard of the twisted metal and destroyed it. She didn’t even notice the eye was gone in her terror and only stopped after she got out and was hit by a car. When the stakes are that high I prescribe heavy medication, but in less extreme circumstances there may be some other options to consider.
One thing to realize is that just being nervous is not life-threatening, and a dog doesn’t stand much of a chance of learning to cope with the fear if given mind altering drugs. Dogs with phobias of the vacuum cleaner or the menacing gnome statuette in the garden can often lose their fear through a process of desensitization by which they are exposed to ever increasing doses of the scary thing until they learn it is not a problem. It is a little harder to control when the neighbors will decide to unleash their illegal arsenal in the weeks in advance of the 4th of July, or to conjure up ever increasing doses of thunderstorms on cue. We can help guide our dogs by ignoring fearful behavior and either go about our business as usual, or engage in active play with the dog, thus demonstrating by our own actions that there is nothing to worry about. Punishing anxious behavior obviously has a tendency to make the situation worse, but even less helpful is inadvertently reinforcing fearful behavior by giving the dog lots of attention and reassurance when it is acting anxious. As an owner is stroking and soothing a dog she is saying in dog language “Yes, this is the behavior I want. Do more of this.”
There are a variety of non-drug options that can sometimes help the situation. Dog Appeasing Pheremone or DAP is a scent detectable only to dogs that gives a chemical signal to them that everything is safe in that area. DAP infused collars, sprays, and room diffusers (made to work like Glade plug-ins) may help give environmental cues that let a dog know that the situation is OK.
I am not trained in homeopathic medicine, but Rescue Remedy is a treatment used for calming in situations where dogs feel anxiety. There is no scientific evidence that it does anything at all, but there are certainly people who swear by it. I have no concerns that it would be harmful, so if it seems to help, then great.
There are zillions of herbal calming treatments out there too. Herbs are essentially drugs in a less quantified and controlled formulation, so using them is similar in principle to using tranquilizers, just with less predictability of results or understanding of exactly what they are doing. Just because it is called “natural” does not necessarily mean it is safer, more gentle, or without possibility of side effects.
So here’s to a summer of improved noise phobia. And if you are one of the lucky people who does not have a dog with such problems try to take into consideration that your neighbor’s 13 year old German Shepherd may not be quite as easy going as your dog when your fireworks extravaganza goes off next door to her.