Avoidance & Antianxiety Treatments

Question:
Help!  My dog is terribly afraid of hot air balloons, causing him to bark uncontrollably.  The occasional balloon I could deal with, but my home is directly under a regular balloon flight path.

Dr. Nichol:
You and your petrified pupster are not alone. There is nothing in the evolutionary adaptations of Canis familiaris (domestic dogs) that prepares them for this annual Albuquerque aerial assault. We humans may regard balloons as beautiful, peaceful, and profitable but many nonhuman creatures see only flying monstrosities.

Dogs like yours suffer from a true phobia, defined as an extreme, irrational response that is out of proportion to the actual danger. It’s natural for a caring owner to comfort a wigged-out loved one but our dogs are different than we are; they’re not little people in furry suits. Believing that any attention from their leader is an earned reinforcer a dog who gets an owner response when frightened can become even more terrified. The best canine leadership will be to allow your scared dog to be near you but without direct interaction.

You can help your boy survive with his head intact by making it easy for him to avoid the entire event. Take him out to eliminate early, before the balloons launch, and allow him to stay inside until they have landed later in the morning. A good sized closet away from a window would provide a welcome hideout. Keep the blinds drawn and turn on a noisy fan to drown out the blast of propane burners.

Some balloon phobic dogs need even more insulation from the cosmic invasion. A Calming Cap is a comfy mask that allows the canine wearer to see only short distances. Mutt Muffs, another fashion accessory for the panicked pooch, help diminish noise sensitivities.

Not everybody takes this problem seriously. People who laugh at their frightened pets cause them to feel ridiculed and abandoned.  Our dogs bring us joy and emotional health. If they are freaked-out they need our help. Fast acting prescription antianxiety medications like clorazepate, and trazodone, or the anxiolytic supplements Anxitane and Zylkene can go a long way in reducing the heebie jeebies. This is an important animal welfare issue; thanks for writing.