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Pit Bull Extremely Fearful of Thunderstorms and Fireworks

My 8-year-old pitbull Nala started to become extremely fearful of thunderstorms and fireworks a few years ago. Every summer after the first few storms and fireworks happen she turns into a nervous dog. She doesn’t want to go out past 6 pm. She is constantly looking around “waiting” for something to happen. She starts shaking for no reason in the evenings since that’s when most of the bad noises happen. This has happened the past 2 summers and is happening again now. I try to walk her more, play with her, distract her with games. But when she is in that mode, nothing works. What can I do to get her over this constant anxiety???


I’d need a little clarity as to when this started. It’s more than a bit unusual for a dog to become seriously fearful in this manner after 3 years of age. It’s not impossible, but it is significant enough that we should give stronger initial consideration that this might be a symptom of something that should include a veterinarian’s area of expertise before we jump right into a behavior modification strategy.

Physical injury, disease, and other physical nature should always be a consideration incorporated into a balanced trainer’s assessment.

For example, many inexperienced trainers contacted about difficulties with puppy house training issues get people jumping through all sorts of hoops without considering that the puppy might have a urinary tract infection. As a result, they waste time and by the time the infection is discovered and addressed, enough time has passed that the puppy’s house soiling has become habitual and now is a real house training problem.

Even in your case, if this has been triggered by something of a physical medical nature it doesn’t mean that a behavior modification strategy might not still need to be incorporated right away or at some point.

If we can’t discover some physical issue while it’s that there are a wide range of behavior modification desensitization exercises usually recommended but for truly noise phobic dogs I’ve found that the authors of these suggestions can’t produce evidence that they have a significant impact in real-world contexts.

The problem with desensitization is that dogs with these sort of issues are often hard-wired for hypersensitivity or had their hard wiring impacted due to influence during their critical socialization imprint period. Desensitizing strategies can’t always or usually cover the varied types of sounds and contexts that can trigger the dog’s anxiety.

I’ve found that in many cases that this type of behavior problem almost always grows worse as a dog ages. In part because dog trainers and veterinarians all too often suggest things that aren’t well thought out and end up adding to the dog’s anxiety. However, the worsening is also connected to a variety of other factors some of which are addressable and some which are not.

I’d have to do a consult with you first, but I suspect, based on past experience I’ve had with pit bulls with the same behavior this might be one of those rare occasions that we would consider turning to an anti-anxiety related medication for use WITH behavior modification exercises. I’ve seen some dramatic improvements but a lot of disappointing results as well. Definitely a case by case.

People are often leery of using pharmaceuticals for something of this nature. There are some excellent reasons for being wary of using behavior modification pharmaceuticals and some not very good reasons.


I’ve encountered this frequently. I broach the option of having a behavior modification pharmaceutical prescribed by a veterinarian, and the response is immediate and visceral. “No, I would never do that!” On a side note, this has made me aware that people with mental illness can be told that times have changed and they can be open about their mental illness without worry about prejudice, but for many people, it does trigger knee-jerk responses.

All I can say is if your dog has a urinary infection and there is a drug that will mend them you wouldn’t hesitate. I don’t have the same faith in many of these behavior modification drugs as I do antibiotics etc. but I wouldn’t dismiss them if there’s real evidence that it might play a role in improving the quality of a dog’s life. In some cases, it’s a temporary measure as it makes learning new coping skills and lifestyle changes that contribute as triggers easier on the dog and dog owner.

Pharmaceutical Company Marketing Hype

When the very first officially approved behavior modification pharmaceutical, Clomicalm (clomipramine hydrochloride) was sold for use in dogs by Novartis (now a division of Elanco/Eli Lilly), I read the literature. I had taken a pharmaceutical behavior modification course at Cornell University taught by Dr. Katherine A. Houpt and others when the concept was in its infancy and later another taught by Dr. Nicholas Dodman, the author of several books, including ‘The Dog Who Loved Too Much’ which kicked off the pharmaceutical frenzy. All told, I had become cautiously optimistic about the potential.

However, I quickly learned that what pharmaceutical companies and the veterinarians hired by them were claiming that dog owners could expect in their dog’s well being was exceptionally grossly exaggerated.

I discovered a few reasons as to why Clomicalm lab results and field results were so different and because they were addressable contacted Novartis to suggest that they expand upon the usage instructions for both veterinarians and dog owners. I provided a strong case as to where the problems lay and how they could be simply and inexpensively addressed with what amounted to a booklet for veterinarians and another for the dog owners. There was no interest. I was told that the drug was a smash success. It was – from a sales perspective. From an efficacy perspective, it almost never worked in the field as prescribed.

Veterinarian Errors

Veterinarians receive fewer hours of education regarding animal behavior than we have fingers on a single hand. Those hours encompass all species and are so general in nature that they are at a real disadvantage when their dog owners come to them with behavior problem concerns. The pharmaceutical companies have taken advantage of this and led the veterinarian community astray.

In the Clomicalm example, veterinarians began handing it out like candy. (A little hyperbolic but only a little.) Sometimes for things, it wasn’t even intended. What most didn’t and still don’t do (with Clomicalm or any behavior modification drugs) is:

◆ Make a proper behavior history before they prescribe.
◆ Do a behavior baseline.
◆ Incorporate more than superficial behavior modification strategies alongside the medication.
◆ Include a referral to an experienced dog trainer or refer to the wrong trainer (see What Are The Different (and best) Puppy and Dog Training Methods)
◆ Reassessment with a comparison to baseline at regularly scheduled intervals to determine whether the dosage is correct or augmentation is required.
◆ Correctly inform clients of the realistic timeline to avoid premature abandonment.

Ironically, they have undermined the actual potential some of these old and new drugs have by creating skepticism in dog trainers, dog owners, and veterinarians. This is a shame as albeit rarely in my experience, sometimes they can and should play a role.

The further irony and the end result is that there are a lot of dog owners now that invested time and money on these drugs on their veterinarian’s say so, based on the pharmaceutical company’s say so, that have become walking talking negative billboards. Not enough that the pharmaceutical companies are willing to make any changes, but enough that some public opinion has been adversely impacted and some dogs won’t get the help that these drugs can sometimes provide.

Let me know if you want to do a Skype consult, and I’ll send details regarding the background information I’ll need beforehand, costs, availability, etc.

John ‘Ask The Dog Guy’ Wade

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