ND: I recommend a number of individualized programs for dogs with thunderstorm phobia, including offering a “safe” place to go (covered crate, basement, etc.), behavior modification (counter-conditioning and desensitization), pheromone therapy and anti-anxiety medication. Many dogs require medication in order to calm down enough to be able to learn new behaviors.
B: What do you think is the most significant result of the study?
ND: I think the most significant result is finding the degree of increase in cortisol that these dogs experienced and the fact that it lasted so long. When I think of the number of dogs who experience similar stressors (which might range from a car ride to panic when left alone), I wonder if all these experiences are accompanied by a similar physiological reaction. We know by their behavior that some dogs become upset by certain situations, but these results show that a physiological response that could have adverse health effects is also occurring.
B: Why do you think the presence of other dogs in the household had an effect on cortisol reactivity in dogs with thunderstorm phobia? Is the higher baseline a key factor in the faster return to near-baseline levels?
ND: I’m not sure why living with other dogs had an effect in our subjects. Their baseline cortisol levels were somewhat higher to begin with, which could indicate they were under more stress on a regular basis. I think it is likely that something about living with other dogs mediates how their stress-response works. Maybe the day-to-day interactions better prepare the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis for response to major stressors.
I would emphasize that the dogs that lived with other dogs didn’t “seem” calmer—behaviorally, there was no difference. Because this was a fairly small study, it is hard to draw many conclusions about the multiple-dog findings.
B: Did the other dogs actually do anything to alleviate stress in these dogs?
ND: What struck me was a total lack of “comforting” as we define it in human terms, from the other dogs in the household. We think of comforting as having a shoulder to cry on, a hug, a gentle word or listening ear. Many of the dogs in our study (both those who lived with other dogs and those who were the only dog) sought out this type of comforting from their human companions. However, there was very little, if any, physical contact between the dogs in this study. Many of the non-subject dogs in the household weren’t even present during the procedure—the caregivers had isolated them in other rooms so they only had to deal with the subject dog.
B: Our magazine promotes adoption of shelter/rescue dogs, and likes to think that dogs benefit by living in multidog households (with compatible canines, of course). Is there any scientific basis for this?
ND: I think our research provides some evidence to support this statement. However, I do not recommend that people with storm-phobic dogs run out and obtain another dog, thinking that will make their dog’s problem go away. The dogs who lived in multidog households still had thunderstorm phobia and severe behavioral responses, despite the fact that they lived with other dogs.
*Published with co-author Douglas Granger, PhD, in Applied Animal Behaviour Science 95: 153–168.