What the dog heard

2012-10-25 00:00

A DALMATIAN-CROSS dog, frightened by fireworks, leapt a fence nearly two metres high and ran several kilometres from home before it was hit by a car. Vet’s staff battled for over an hour to try to save it, but sadly, the trauma was too much, resulting in death. In another incident, a hunting dog had to be put down after it was found with a badly dislocated lumbar vertebra by the side of the road. Paralysed in both hind legs, the decision was made to euthanase. The dog had also cleared a high fence in an attempt to escape from a thunderstorm.

Of all the noises affecting dogs, such as sirens, gunshots, or fireworks, the majority of fear disorders are linked to thunder. About 20% of all dogs are sound sensitive, with abnormal responses to noise usually manifested in puppies at about a year old. Even though all breeds are affected, the condition seems to be more common in Border collies and Staffies, which has led to the conclusion by animal behaviour scientists, that genetics can be a contributing factor. Chemical imbalances in the brain may also be an issue requiring consideration.

These fear-based responses are instinctive, self-protective syndromes. It is a complicated integration of mental, physiological and behavioural components. Besides flight, it can also lead to fight or freeze behaviour, depending on temperament.

Response levels to such disorders are proportional to thunderstorm intensity. The condition is enhanced by repeated exposure to the sound stimuli. Atmospheric pressure, fluctuations in temperature, thunder, strong wind, heavy rain falling on corrugated iron or plastic roofs, can all have an influence. Sometimes the behaviour is worse in the owner’s absence.

Incredibly, dogs can determine the origin of a sound in 60 milliseconds. The average time required for a human to blink, takes on average, about 125 milliseconds. Canine hearing is four times more acute than that of the human ear. Research has shown that a dog can distinguish between two notes differing by only one eighth of a tone. For these reasons, our pets will begin displaying fear behaviour, even if local skies are clear, when the thunder is more than 80 kilometres away.

Reactions to thunderstorms may range from low-intensity symptoms of mild trembling, pacing, hyperventilating and pawing at the ground, to high-intensity symptoms of whining, salivating, indoor soiling or frantic running around to find a dark and secluded place to hide. Some dogs attempt to escape by destructive chewing, digging under fences or jumping through plate-glass windows.

There is no doubt that astraphobic pets suffer overwhelming stress. Sadly, when traumatised dogs become so deranged, destructive and dangerous, the decision is made to euthanase.

The good news is that, even in severe cases, the condition of astraphobia can be resolved to a comfortable level. Sometimes, although owners believed that the behaviour was incurable, I have proved otherwise. However, it requires a process where the humans have to modify their own behavioural patterns before dogs stop behaving abnormally. Prevention is always better than cure, and if environmental enrichment is taken care of adequately at the appropriate time of a puppy’s existence, the possibility of acquiring these phobias are virtually impossible. It must be appreciated though that fear of thunder can develop into a learnt behaviour which is inadvertently caused by human influences.

Please contact me or your vet’s practice should you have any concerns.


• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his website www.dogtorste ve.co.za Advice is only dispensed in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

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