Yes, it’s that time of year again, when you hear the forecast that many dog owners dread – chance of thunderstorms. People lose sleep and often time from their jobs in attempts to be with their dogs during storms. Houses get destroyed when dogs frantically try to escape the noise. I even heard of a dog who jumped out of a second story window in an attempt to find safety. Consider yourself among the lucky ones if your dog does not completely freak out during a storm.
Even though your dog may not have problems now, many dogs develop thunder and noise phobias later in life. Let’s first review how to ensure your dog does not become thunder-phobic. Then we’ll take a look at what can be done to work with dogs who react fearfully during storms.
It only takes one incident for a dog to learn to fear thunder. You may be in the middle of some particularly loud and house-shaking boomers when you dog’s ears go back and he runs under the bed. Being human with the instinct to nurture, our first inclination is to tell the dog that everything’s okay. We even hug the dog and comfort him like a child. The problem with this approach is that dogs don’t think like humans. Telling a dog that “it’s okay” is not understood. Dogs, instead, read this comforting as a reinforcer for the behavior. In the dog’s mind, he’s thinking, “Hmm, I act scared and I get comforted which feels good. So I’ll keep on acting scared in order to receive more comforting.” A dog cannot reason that “it’s okay” means that the thunder will not harm him.
The better option is to let your dog find a safe place and leave him alone. Most dogs have a place in their homes where they feel good. Allow your dog to go there undisturbed. If you dog does not seek a safe place but instead comes to you, act like nothing is wrong. Try to engage him in play or distract him with his favorite treats. Have him do sits, stays and other obedience commands that show your dog that you are in charge and in control of the situation. Plus it also serves to distract you from the scary storm! After all, we may have the tendency to react nervously ourselves during a bad storm.
Okay, what do you do if your dog already has thunder phobia? I wish there was an easy, straightforward and consistent solution. There’s not. The truth is that some dogs react well to some methods and other dogs have no reaction. Plus, the severity of the dog’s reaction to storms will dictate the course of action.
There are many theories as to why dogs become so phobic of thunder. One theory suggests that the electricity in the air creates a static charge, making the dogs very uncomfortable. Another theory indicates that the barometric pressure drops during a storm, and this too creates discomfort for some dogs. Or it can quite simply be that the dog fears noise. Regardless of the source, the idea behind most treatments requires lowering the dog’s anxiety and using counter-conditioning. Counter-conditioning means to change the dog’s present negative association of bad things with thunder to a positive association.
Methods of lowering the dog’s anxiety are many:
* Anxiety Wrap or tight t-shirts – Studies have shown that some dogs experience a lowering in their anxiety if they are hugged securely. So someone invented a garment for dogs called an Anxiety Wrap. Worn around the dog’s torso, it fits very snugly and may simulate the action of being hugged. Instead of buying the Anxiety Wrap, some dogs respond to a tight t-shirt worn similarly around the torso.
* Static cape – Although I have never heard of any dogs who have benefited from this garment, the static cape is a garment worn around the dog’s shoulders and back (just like a cape) and has been purported to reduce the static charge affecting the dog during a storm.
* DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) –When dogs nurse their pups, they emit a pheromone which is comforting to the puppies. There is a product now on the market called DAP which is a synthetic version of this pheromone. First available as a plug-in unit (like an air freshener), it now also comes in a spray version and as a collar worn around the dog’s neck. Many dogs have shown improvement in their reactions to thunder when this product is used.
* Lavender, essential oils and flower essences – Many people believe that these products have calming effects on dogs. Although no scientific evidence exists to prove it, there is no harm in trying them. The results may be very subtle yet effective.
* Massage and T-touch – Gentle and slow stroking helps to relax dogs. If your dog’s reaction to thunder is not severe, he may enjoy a relaxing massage at the beginning of a storm to help keep him from getting more agitated. However, a dog who reacts severely to storms will not be able to settle down for a massage. I once visited a new client to give his dog a massage. In the distance, the dog could hear thunder but I could not. This poor dog would not lie down for me and nothing I did settled him. It wasn’t long until I heard the thunder myself and realized this dog was not in any mood to be massaged.
Dogs with more severe thunder phobia will need counter-conditioning and possibly medication:
* Counter-conditioning – A thunder phobic dog has developed an association of something bad with thunder. He is ‘conditioned’ to react with fear. The objective of counter-conditioning is to teach the dog to associate good things with thunder. A common approach is to play a CD with thunder sounds, very softly at first, as you feed the dog high value treats. The idea is hopefully the dog will then develop a new conditioned response to the thunder – to look for high quality treats when he hears the thunder.
* Medication – Usually the last resort when a dog is severely affected by thunder, ACE (acepromazine) was a popular drug administered at the first signs of a storm. This is a very powerful tranquilizer that zonks out the dog after about an hour. Unfortunately, the storm can come and go before the medication takes effect, and often times, the owners are not home when the storm hits to be able to administer it to the dog anyway. Additionally, research has shown that dogs who are given ACE become more thunder phobic. The presumption is that ACE causes the dog to be out of control. This lack of control during a fearful event creates an even more conditioned fear response. More and more veterinarians are now prescribing Xanax instead of ACE. Consult your veterinarian for medication recommendations.
Best yet, a combination of treatments are now being explored. The use of medication, DAP, the Anxiety Wrap and any other relaxing activity during counter-conditioning can create a package of a positive conditioned response to storms. This is how it works:
When there is no storm present, light a lavender candle, plug in the DAP unit (or spray the DAP), dress the dog in the Anxiety Wrap (or a tight t-shirt) and do some massage. Play the CD with the thunder sounds as you give the dog very high value treats that he usually does not have (canned chicken, string cheese, liver bites). The idea is that the dog will form an association of the lavender candle, the Anxiety Wrap, a massage, and great treats with thunder. So when a real storm approaches, you can do the same routine (if you are home) and the dog will feel better.
Resolving phobias is tricky business. Ensure you proceed slowly and consult with a professional before attempting any counter-conditioning. All of these methods require a huge commitment to work with the dog. It’s worth it, if it keeps your dog with you and makes him happier.