The thunder-phobic dog: tips for weathering the storm

images Fear of thunderstorms can be incredibly stressful on both the dogs who suffer from it and the people who live with them. Symptoms can      range from mild panting to hours of uncontrollable trembling. In severe cases, mounting panic can cause some dogs to claw and chew their way through walls or jump high fences to escape, injuring themselves, getting hit by cars or winding up lost.

While not all dogs can be cured, there are some tips that can help both you and Rover cope. Keep in mind that most dogs make excellent meteorologists and can start to feel anxious at the first gust of wind or drop in barometric pressure, long before a storm rolls in. Taking steps early to prevent the anxiety from building can make a big difference.

Don’t hesitate to comfort your dog:

Many dog owners are under the impression that cuddling or paying attention to their anxious dogs will somehow reinforce the fear. This simply isn’t true. Cuddles, play and treats can all help make Rover a little more comfortable so don’t be shy to let him crawl into your lap for some love and cuddles. If he’s only mildly stressed, it might be a good time to break out his favourite toy and get him playing with you to take his mind off the storm.

Provide a quiet safe place:

If you’ve taught Rover to love his crate, let him hide out in there and cover it with a blanket to block out some of the noise. Many dogs try to get down to the basement where they won’t see or hear what’s going on. Let them. If a basement isn’t an option, close the drapes and play some soothing classical music in the background. Avoid confining them as this can cause panic to escalate if they feel they can’t escape.

Desensitization and counter conditioning:

This tends to work best in milder cases;  pair something wonderful (like roast chicken or tug toys) with a mild version of the Scary Thing. Start as soon as your dog senses  ‘something is up’.  Prepare for a rainy day (literally) by playing a thunderstorm soundtrack on CD at very low levels while pairing with Something Wonderful. Of course this tackles only the obvious sounds of a storm and doesn’t take into account other triggers such as flashes of light, air pressure and electrostatic charge so this approach can be limited. I’ve even heard of people rubbing their dogs feet with dryer sheets to eliminate the static electricity. A long shot? Maybe. But it’s worth a try.

Consider a Thundershirt:

This specialized wrap is a essentially a snug fitting coat. The gentle and constant pressure it provides can have a calming effect on your dog, similar to swaddling a baby. Best to try this one before a storm. If your dog is anything like my Kali who freezes in fear when I put on her winter coat, a wrap probably isn’t an option.

Consult your veterinarian:

Some dogs experience such severe symptoms during thunderstorms that only medication can help. General anxiety reducing drugs (anti-depressants) and faster acting tranquilizers can literally be a life-saver for some dogs. Consult with your vet to determine whether this might be a suitable option for your dog.

In most cases a combination of some or all of the above can help. But in all cases, do practice safety and ensure that Rover can’t escape through an inadvertently opened door or gate left open and take heart – the sun will come out, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.