14
May 12

Thunderstorm Phobias

By Melanie Schlaginhaufen

 

Every year about this time, I repost this article, because fear of thunderstorms is so distressing for both dogs and owners. Have you ever experienced the sight of a dog frantically pacing, whining, or diving for cover the instant thunder rumbles in the distance? Or came home to find that the happy dog you left playing in the backyard this morning has injured himself, even damaged your home, digging and clawing his way through a door to come inside?  All of these behaviors are incredibly upsetting, and are a sign that your dog needs treatment for a phobia of thunderstorms.


Animal behaviorists have studied this problem for years, yet no one has found the definite "cure". Complicating the issue is the fact that thunderstorm phobia can develop late in life, often manifesting itself for the first time at age 7 or 8. My theory on this is that older dogs experience some sort of pain when the barometric pressure drops, like an arthritic human being experiences when a storm is on the way. Since there are many components to a storm (atmospheric changes, loud thunder, flashing lightening, hard rain pounding on the roof) it can be difficult to determine exactly what triggers your dog's fear.


So what can you do to help your dog that is afraid of storms? A small percentage of dogs respond to desensitization techniques, such as providing valued food rewards while being exposed to a tape recording of storm noises. The tapes are initially played very softly, increasing the volume gradually during each training session as your dog becomes more comfortable. Unfortunately noise is only part of the issue, and it is almost impossible to duplicate things such as changes in barometer pressure. So unless you have the luxury of working at a research center that has a thunderstorm duplicate chamber, you can only go so far with desensitization.


However, you can help reduce the possibility that static electricity is part of the issue by rubbing the dog all over with a dryer sheet, such as “Bounce".  Because the unscented version can be hard to find, we offer it in our Knowing Dogs Amazon store, under the Anti-Anxiety section. It is helpful to rub this on yourself as well, so you do not accidentally shock your dog when you touch him on a stormy day. There is also now a special anti-static cape marketed for dogs with thunderstorm phobias, called the Storm Defender and there is another piece of doggie clothing, not anti-static but supposedly very effective for anxiety, called the Anxiety Wrap.  If you are interested in reading about a study which compared the use of an anti-static cape versus a placebo cape, take a look at this short article. With our storm phobic dog, we simply use the dryer sheets plus DAP plug-ins,  but if you have tried a Storm Defender or Anxiety Wrap, I would love to hear from you about their effectiveness. Thundershirts are another product that has become popular, and just like wraps, they work the same way that swaddling a baby works, to calm the dog.

 

Exercise and certain supplements can be valuable in lowering anxiety of any type, so increase your dog’s daily exercise (and therefore his endorphin level) during storm season. Try getting up earlier so you can take him for a long walk before you leave for work or errands, walking in the morning when it is cool, on any day when thunderstorms may have a chance of popping up. Make sure he is on a healthy diet, with supplements if needed. Taurine is an amino acid that increases dopamine levels, which can have a calming effect, so this is the supplement I most often recommend for dogs with any type of anxiety issue. I have also seen success when adding B vitamins, particularly B-3, which is niacinamide. More is not better, use the smallest dose recommended, gradually working up to a slightly higher dose if needed for more calming effect* All the B vitamins work together for neurological health, but most pet owners don't enjoy poking pills, and B vitamins can have a bit of a yukky taste, however niacinamide is a tiny pill, easily concealed in a treat or a piece of cheese, that most dogs eat without any trouble so it isn't necessary to poke it down the dog's throat.


A daily anti-anxiety medication (sometimes in the anti-depressant family) is often prescribed, with tranquilizers as needed on stormy days. The hardest part of being successful with medications is the timing. If the dog's adrenaline level is already up due to sensing the approach of a storm, his body may not be able to respond appropriately to the tranquilizer. Keep in mind that tranquilizers must be given at least an hour before he is able to sense the storm's approach. This can be difficult in climates where storms arise suddenly, often while you are at work. One of the most wonderful things can be a dog-loving neighbor who will actually sit with your dog if a storm arises when you are away.. But even if this cannot be arranged, a stay-at-home neighbor may be able to come over at least long enough to give your dog his med if a storm is approaching. This is always less stressful on the neighbor if your dog will take the pill hidden in a tasty treat, such as a small piece of cheese.  There are now even treats made especially for the purpose of hiding pills (called Pill Pockets).


This year, 2017, I finally have a bit of news to add in reference to medication for storm phobic dogs. A new medication, called Selio(TM) has come out, for noise phobic dogs. I am going to simply include a link to the website from the manufacturer, since I haven't worked with a dog who is on this medication. I have however, read some good reviews of it, from dog owners on Facebook who have tried it. These were dog owners who had to use rather strong tranquilizers in the past, since their dogs became so upset by storms when they were not home that they would harm themselves, and of course that usually also involved harming the home, from chewing through drywall all the way to breaking through windows!  So definitely I would suggest speaking with your veterinarian about the props, and any cons, to this medication. Here is the most current information I could find for you: https://www.zoetisus.com/products/dogs/sileo/.


Be sure your dog is in a safe place if he must be left alone during a day when a storm is likely. Doggie daycare can be a good option during storm-prone months, particularly for dogs who cannot handle being in a comfy crate while you are away. Some dogs do feel secure in the crate and will not harm themselves trying to get out during a storm, but unfortunately, some panic and do get hurt.  Safety is of the highest importance, because storm phobic dogs often will tear through fencing, even break through windows and doors, if left alone during a storm.


When you are home during the stormy event, be careful not to accidentally reinforce your dog’s fearful behavior by coddling him during storms. If you remain calm and act as if everything is normal, then your dog will be less fearful. Teach him, on non-stormy days, what the "place" command means, so that he is used to laying on a mat or dog bed when he is directed to his place . During storms, you can always move his mat to the room you are in, so that he is near you, but not having to be held constantly (as constant stroking and reassurance can backfire, again, let me stress it is better to try to keep the environment as much like normal as possible). Another reason to avoid holding the dog if you can, is because during a very loud clap of thunder, we, human beings, also sometimes have an automatic physical response, and your dog will pick up on this, making him more fearful because he will sense your adrenaline. If he is a small dog used to sitting on your lap, try to position him to your side, beside you in the chair, instead of right on top of you---most dogs know that if Mom has a book or a computer device in her lap, then they don't need to be sitting right in the middle!


If the storm is not directly overhead, keep the television or radio on, to block out some of the noise. Using a Comfort Zone DAP plug-in where the dog will be staying can also be very helpful, especially if you make sure to keep the plug in part fresh, and you use it only during thunderstorm season, not all year long, so the dog doesn't become desensitized to it.


Comfort Zone spray can also have a calming effect on some dogs, if sprayed on their bedding or misted in the air.  D.A.P. stands for "dog appeasing pheromones". For an easy-to-understand explanation of how these products work to lower anxiety in dogs, see the manufacturer's website - www.petcomfortzone.com.  For thunderstorm phobias and separation anxiety, I am a big believer in taking an approach that combines everything that may help lower the dog's fear level and keep him more comfortable.

 

Please feel free to leave a comment below or Contact me through the Contact form if you have a storm phobic dog and would like to share your suggestions with our readers. Also, if you own a fearful dog, please consider purchasing the inexpensive dog ebook, Healing the Broken Heart...How to Rehab a Fearful Dog. The price has been reduced to 5.97, and this is a booklet full of valuable information, delivered to your inbox seconds after your purchase it. 

(c)2002-2017, Melanie Schlaginhaufen, all rights reserved. For reprint permission, use the Contact Us form.  Portions of this article were originally written by Melanie for a website titled DogSpace, which later was launched as DogSter, however the author has retained the copyright on this article and added to it from time to time through the years. Animal rescue groups, and ethical breeders, will normally be given permission to reprint, as long as this copyright information and a link to www.knowingdogs.com is included at the end of the article. 

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Comments (4)
  • Diane Novak

    Hi Mellie, I'm not an expert on thunderstorm phobias but I've had my share of dogs that were super fearful. I wish I would have known about the flower essences back then. This is from the site: www.ygrr.org/doginfo/behavior-phobia.htmla "Start with a single remedy. One of these two usually will do the trick; Mimulus, which works for "fear of known things" and Rock Rose, which works for terror and panic. Let your intuition guide you. If you're home when a storm is approaching, administer a dose before and during the storm. If you see that your animal is still agitated or depressed after the storm, give the remedy again. If you try the Mimulus, for example, and notice a slight improvement, for the next storm try Mimulus again along with Rescue Remedy or Calming Essence. If you don't see results with these two remedies, try Aspen or Star of Bethlehem.

  • Melanie S  - reply to Diane

    Thank you Diane. Thank goodness no one here is suffering from this, now that our sweet boy Gusto (the old Standard Poodle) is gone.

    Our little Dachie had some problems but I could wrap her up, like swaddling her, and she would be okay. Now that she is very old (at least 15 the vet thinks) she is ignoring storms....so I imagine it was the noise and she may be deaf enough now to sleep through them! Thank you though, for the info about flower essences. I have used only Rescue Remedy, used ago, and did not find it effective for anything, although I have other trainer friends who swear by it!

  • Ozell Beckner  - Knowing Dogs l Melanie Schlaginhaufen Dog Training

    I am really inspired with your writing talent well with the layout to your weblog. Is this a paid topic or did you modify it your self? Anyway stay up the excellent high quality writing, it’s rare to peer a great blog like this one nowadays.

  • Melanie S  - thanks

    Thanks Ozell, for the kind words. Almost everything on this blog is written by myself, as I cannot afford to pay other writers. Occasionally someone will contribute who wishes to market their product, and if their product is good, I'm fine with interviewing them or letting them do a guest post.Again, thanks for the kind words and taking time to write. Hope you and yours, canine and human, have a lovely Christmas and a wonderful 2017. Melanie

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