Fear is an emotional response to either a real or perceived danger. A phobia is an excessive and inappropriate response to a perceived fear. It is possible to become phobic to almost anything and at anytime in life. For example, there are many dogs that are afraid of loud noises.
At this time of year it is common to have thunderstorms present themselves with loud claps of thunder, strong winds and lightning. If your dog anticipates the storm with signs of heavy breathing, pacing, whining, attempts to hide, etc., then he/she has probably developed a phobia to loud noises.
The treatment of choice for most phobias is a process called systematic desensitization. In this case a sound effects record can be used to artificially reproduce the noise that a thunderstorm would make. The object is to play the recording at a low enough volume so as to not elicit a nervous response from the dog. Next, gradually increase the volume and reward the dog only for not getting anxious. If you should see any signs of fear, then stop and reduce the volume and try again at a lower volume. Introducing a competitive stimulus such as a toy or food can often help distract the dog while the volume is raised beyond the previously established threshold.
This behavior modification technique takes a lot of time and patience. A faster way to change the dog’s response to loud noises is to “flood” the dog with a constant barrage of thunderstorm noises, at a high volume, for many hours at a time. Depending on the resistance to change or the strength of the phobia, this process can take days to weeks of hard work to extinguish. Medications, such as tranquilizers, are best used for short periods of time if at all. Punishment is usually counter-productive and is therefore not recommended for this type of behavior problem.