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.
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. 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.
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).
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). 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.
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 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 dog ebook, Healing the Broken Heart...How to Rehab a Fearful Dog. For only 9.97, you will receive a lot of valuable information, delivered to your inbox seconds after your purchase.
(c)2002-2010, 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.