Perth has storms forecast over the next few days and I’ve had a lot of calls looking for help for frightened dogs. Dogs end up hurting themselves and destroying doors, fences and even escaping with far worse consequences. They are trying to flee the storm of course, an awful exercise in futility, and nearly as distressing for their owners as it is for them. Fortunately there is plenty of help. Read on to find out what causes this mostly irrational dog fear and how you can help your dog deal with a fear of thunder.
Why do so many dogs suffer so much with lightning and thunder?
The combination of the chaotic change in frequency and intensity of thunderclaps, and the flash that precedes them, combined with the common presence of high winds and heavy rain, makes this sound and light show something that progressively increases many dog’s alarm levels. Each new bolt from the blue adds to the previously elevated alert level as the dog hasn’t had time to relax from the previous one. This is even worse if the storm cell is moving toward your location. If the storm lasts long enough and comes close enough it generates a strong impression of an approaching monster and dogs can understandably begin to feel they need to escape to have any chance of surviving.
What can you do to help a dog with a severe storm phobia?
First step is to remove the anxious dog to the most internal, quiet room in the house. The room with the smallest windows to the outside is best. Close any doors and put a loud radio or TV on. Provide a mat or dog bed of some sort and get your dog to lie down on that bed. If you haven’t already trained your dog to lie down and stay on command – get on with it! This is such an important thing to have reliably trained. Seriously, I cannot emphasise enough how valuable this is. The same anxiety lowering affect you have probably heard about with Thundershirts and Anxiety Wraps comes absolutely free of charge within minutes or even seconds of a dog laying down.
So you get your dog to lie down on a comfortable place and you reward the dog for doing so. A tasty treat and a loving pat ticks the dopamine boxes while the postural change ticks the serotonin boxes. But there goes another loud bolt of thunder and your dog leaps up frightened and rushes for the door whimpering again. Again, in a firm no-nonsense manner just quietly require your dog to go back to the bed and lie down. Then reward again. Rinse and repeat!
If your dog is simply too freaked out to have any interest in yummy treats (and I trust you are using the absolute yummiest things you have available) or be able to respond to any commands – you need more help. The anxiety shirts mentioned above are very useful and provide remarkable benefits to most dogs. They are worth the cost. Pheromone collars also work very well for a lot of dogs, and are particularly valuable when embarking on a dedicated program of desensitisation. They only last about 4 weeks and cost as much as a Thundershirt however, so you need to be fairly committed to a training program to get value for money.
The next level is medication. Serotonin affecting drugs are a long term administration type approach, and like the pheromone collars work best when embarking on a serious desensitisation program. For occasional use the benzodiazepine (valium like) drugs are the most appropriate to use. Mostly they need to be given before onset of the storm, although there is some benefit when given after a thunderstorm is raging.
What about Ace?
One drug that should not be used in thunderstorms, in this clinician’s opinion, is called ACP, or Ace. Vets have been prescribing this drug for years for pets with storm and noise phobias yet there is now evidence that despite tranquillising the animal this drug doesn’t lower anxiety and actually increases noise sensitivity. Hardly what you want in a thunderstorm. The only good thing that can be said about ACP for this situation is that the tranquillising effect does lower the likelihood of escape and the amount of damage that a panicking dog can do to itself and the house/fence/gate etc.
Desensitisation – a solution to all anxieties and phobias
If you want to pro-actively fix your dog’s fear the well researched and utilised desensitisation and counter-conditioning process is a wonderful solution. Simulating a storm at a very low level initially with a recording on a sound system (capable of being very loud) allows you to gently and persistently lower your dog’s fear. You start by finding a sound level that DOES activate your dog’s fear – just briefly – to ensure your sound system has the guts to do it, and then by turning the volume waaaay down until your dog mostly ignores it. Make a note of that level and come back to it every single day, playing the recording while you interact with your dog. You can really do anything the dog finds fun and wants to do – training with rich positive reinforcement is ideal. When you notice your dog doesn’t react at all to the thunderclaps in the recording you can turn it up a little – until you find that response peeking in again. And keep going until you get noise complaints from the neighbours. One of the best thunderstorm recordings I’ve found can be downloaded from Freesound.org. Go and grab it now, get it onto the loudest stereo in your house and start making your frightened hound a happier one!
Of course please contact me via Facebook or this site if you need help with any of this – for some dogs it’s just all too scary. I can tailor a complete program using any or all of the options detailed above, including ready to play storm CDs as well as a complete storm-power sound system (if yours isn’t up to the task), as most appropriately suits your pet and your situation. You are welcome to call me (number at top and bottom of page).