I recently taught a seminar in St. Petersburg, Florida. A friend told me St. Pete is the “lightning capital” of the country, and it’s not hard to believe. While I was there the weather forecast seemed to perpetually predict storms. Many dogs are thunderstorm phobic, and unfortunately, repeated exposure to storms does not allay the fear nor cure the phobia.
Many owners attempt to desensitize their dogs with CDs of recorded thunderstorms, and some are successful. But a storm is composed of many factors besides sound, and many dogs still tremble and worse when the thunder begins to roar. With that in mind, I’d like to share some ideas and products that may help.
1. Allow your dog to take shelter. Your dog might feel safest in his crate, or he may seek refuge in the bathroom. Many dogs hunker down near the toilet or even in the bathtub, possibly because those spots are grounded via the plumbing. My boy Mojo preferred the bathtub during storms.
2. Some people think it’s a bad idea to comfort dogs when they’re afraid. Others believe it helps. According to one study, neither comforting a storm phobic dog nor ignoring him had an effect either way. However, having another dog present did allow the frightened dog’s stress hormones to return to normal levels faster.Every dog is different, and reassuring a dog is a far cry from coddling him. While you shouldn’t scare your dog further by using a nervous tone of voice or mannerisms, if he feels better with you sitting by him, laying a comforting hand on him, or speaking in a soothing voice, do so. If you can round up another dog for company, even better.
3. Many dogs feel more secure when swaddled—or as I like to think of it, wrapped up like a giant doggie burrito. An easy way to accomplish this is with a t-shirt. Make sure it fits your dog snugly, then gather the material at the top with a rubber band, avoiding placing the knot directly over the spine. You can also try a product such as the Anxiety Wrap or the Thundershirt. Whichever product you use, be sure to repeatedly place it on your dog and pair it with something he likes ahead of time so the wrap is not only associated with storms.
4. Playing soothing music before your dog becomes frightened can help him to maintain his composure, or to at least be less nervous when the storm hits. The “Through a Dog’s Ear” CDs are psychoacoustically engineered to encourage a relaxation response from dogs, and are well worth a try. If you prefer to use music you already have on hand, choose simple classical music over, say, heavy metal. Introduce your dog to the music during relaxed periods far in advance of when it’s actually needed.
5. The change in barometric pressure that accompanies thunderstorms can cause some dogs, especially long-haired ones, to become uncomfortable. That’s due to the static electricity being picked up in the coat. The Storm Defender cape guards against this phenomenon. As with the other solutions, acclimate the dog in a positive manner ahead of time.
6. Melotonin is a natural hormone that regulates the biological clock. It’s not a sedative, but it can leave your dog feeling more relaxed about what’s happening in the environment. Doctors Nicholas Dodman and Linda Aronson have demonstrated good results when melotonin was administered to thunderstorm phobic dogs.
7. If despite your best attempts at intervention your dog is still severely stressed during storms, speak with your veterinarian about a short-term sedative such as diazepam. Avoid acepromazine, as it can sedate the body but leave the mind spinning in fear.
If you’d like more in-depth explanations and information, refer to “Help for Your Fearful Dog.” In the meantime, these suggestions should provide a good start, and I hope they help your dog to be more comfortable when the next storm rolls in.
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