Just Ask the Expert: Managing storm phobias with difficult patients—and clients - Veterinary Medicine
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Just Ask the Expert: Managing storm phobias with difficult patients—and clients



Some owners wish to change their pets' emotional response to thunderstorms by desensitizing and counter-conditioning them to the sounds associated with storms. This behavior modification can usually be done quite effectively by using a recording of thunderstorms. Recordings are readily available on the Internet, often specifically for this purpose.

Desensitization is performed by playing the recording at a level that is so low that it does not appear to cause the dog any fear or anxiety. Over repeated sessions, the volume is slowly increased until the dog no longer responds to the sound even when it is as loud as the sound of a real thunderstorm.

Alone, desensitization can be a lengthy and time-consuming process. But if combined with counter-conditioning, it usually works more quickly. Counter-conditioning is achieved by sitting with the dog while the recording plays and feeding the dog special, highly preferred food treats. This works because the dog eventually learns through classical conditioning to associate good things (eating a special treat) with the sound that previously caused distress (the storm noise).

When pet owners have problems with these procedures, it is usually because they try to turn the volume up too quickly before their pets lose their fear of the noise at that volume. Encourage clients to be patient and let their dogs dictate when the volume gets turned up. Turning the volume up before a dog is ready will only delay success in the long run. Clients must also be taught to be attentive to their dogs' early subtle signs of anxiety such as lip licking, yawning, or avoidance behavior.

A combination of desensitization and counter-conditioning is a proven method of changing an animal's behavior. In the case of treating storm phobias, clients must understand that it will be most effective if they can practice the technique during the season when storms are not common. Trying to do it during thunderstorm season will only make the training more difficult. If an owner is using desensitization and counter-conditioning to change a dog's response to storms, he or she also needs to be aware that the pet should still have a "safe place" during storms and be given an anxiolytic to help the pet deal with the storms until the behavior modification can have an effect.


At this time, no extreme sensitivity to the benzodiazepines or other anxiolytics has been clearly documented in sight hounds, including greyhounds. However, it is always a good idea to err on the side of caution and begin treatment at the low end of the dose range until you can confirm the individual's response to the medication.

Other useful tools for storm survival, especially for clients who are hesitant to give psychotropic drugs to their pets, include pheromone diffusers and collars, anxiety wraps, and natural supplements such as L-theanine (Anxitane—Virbac). More research is needed on these products, but at this time they appear to work often enough in some patients to make them worth mentioning. As with many treatments, not every product works equally in every individual in every circumstance, so help clients to have realistic expectations and to be prepared to try different things until the most effective solution for their pets is identified.

Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, DACVB
Premier Veterinary Behavior Consulting
P.O. Box 1413
Sweetwater, TX 79556


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