Updated: Aug 13, 2018
What a month we've had. Record breaking temperatures and minimal precipitation almost makes you forget about our 7 months of cold, cruel winter, doesn't it? No? Too soon? I agree.
A few nights ago, we experienced our first thunderstorm of 2018. Me? I love a good storm; the rumble of thunder, flash of lightning, and the pounding of rain on the roof is music to my ears. My 6-year-old dog, Kaslo (who, I might add, has slept through every storm he has encountered thus far), decided that this year, thunderstorms are stressful.
Kaslo is not alone. Thunderstorm - or storm phobias in general - is a very common problem experienced by many of our pet dogs. With many more storms likely on the horizon this summer, it is important to know what to watch for with storm phobia.
Symptoms of storm phobia include (but are not limited to):
6. Hiding/Trying to escape/flee
All of the above listed symptoms can vary in severity from dog to dog.
Basically, the storm is causing your dog a lot of stress, anxiety and fear; all emotions that are taxing and can be debilitating if experienced for prolonged periods of times.
So what do we do? Here's how I am going to handle Kaslo's newfound storm phobia.
Step One: Prevent or reduce exposure to the trigger
A trigger is whatever stimuli is causing or prompting the behavior from my dog; in this case the storm is the trigger that is causing my dog's fear and anxiety. Unfortunately, we cannot get rid of or block the storm completely, so I'm going to have to do the best that I can. I'm going to do so by reducing visual stimulation: drawing the blinds/curtains and closing the windows to try and "mute" the noise of the thunder.
I may go as far as moving down into my basement, where the noise will likely be less intense, and here the smaller windows (also with window coverings/blinds drawn) will limit the amount of light perceived by lightning flashes. Bonus: it's much cooler down there, so I am hopefully managing some of the environmental stress that the heat is causing my dog. Win-win.
Step Two: Create a safe place/environment
Lots of dogs will try to flee or hide from a thunderstorm. These dogs may benefit from a "den" that they can go into during the storm. This may be a dog crate, draped in a blanket to keep it dark and reduce visual stimulation. This could be underneath the bed (if the dog thinks this is a safe place, I would encourage you to 'work with them' here.) My previous dog used to find comfort wedged between the two couches in our living room; that was his 'safe place.' I think that the feel of the furniture on his body was 'soothing' to him, but who knows, really.
Kaslo is one of those dog's who doesn't try to flee, instead, he seeks out a member of the family and wants to be touching them. I'm OK with that; he's communicating to us that we make him feel safe (and I mean, isn't that our job as pet owners?) Allowing Kaslo to lie with (on) me, is not reinforcing his anxiety or fear, just as soothing a child who has had a nightmare does not promote nightmares.
Within this safe place, wherever it may be, I am going to be playing calm, relaxing music, at a volume that is appropriate for my dog; loud enough to perhaps "muddle" the sound of the storm, but not too loud so that it is causing additional stress to my dog. I highly recommend "Through a Dog's Ear" to my clients whose dogs have any form of anxiety. This music plays at a 60 bpm (beat-per-minute) tempo, in an attempt at slowing down the dog's heart rate (which essentially helps the dog 'calm down.')
I am also going to plug in my DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) diffuser, or spray my dog's crate (or preferred resting place) with DAP spray. This pheromone is going to help my dog feel calmer as well (although, the degree to which this will help your dog really depends on the severity of the anxiety s/he is experiencing).
Step Three: Redirect Dog's Attention/Create Positive Associations
So I now have my dog set-up in a safe environment, music playing, DAP diffusing. Next, I want to try and focus my dog's brain on something other than the storm that is occurring outside.
I may do this by fitting my dog with a Thundershirt. This velcro-on shirt applies constant, gentle pressure to your dog's chest/torso, and almost acts like swaddling an infant. These shirts can be used for any form of anxiety your dog might have, not just thunderstorm anxiety.
Following this, I'm going to find something that my dog enjoys/finds reinforcing. For many dogs, this is going to come in the form of eating. Provide your dog a really high-value chewy that they can munch on during the storm; Bully sticks, smoked or marrow bones, stuffed +/- frozen Kongs, etc. Not only is chewing a way to relieve stress and defuse tension, but your dog may start thinking, "That scary thunder happened, and this delicious treat was presented to me. Hmm." After several, consistent pairings of thunderstorms and super yummy Bully sticks, your dog may start to think "Yay! Thunderstorm! I get a special chewy!" We're starting to change the way your dog feels about the storms; how wonderful!
Your dog may really enjoy playing fetch or tug with you - perfect! Use this to your advantage! When you hear that first clap of thunder, cue your dog "Go get your ball!" and start a fun game of fetch. Your dog may start to think "Thunderstorms = fun playtime with my owner! Yippee!"
If your dog has severe thunderstorm anxiety to the point where they are unable to settle, cannot eat, or become physically ill during the storm, I would highly recommend speaking to your veterinarian about supplements and/or medications that may be beneficial to give to your dog prior to a storm.
As with any behavior issue, prevention is the best medicine! If you have a young puppy, start to create positive associations to storms right off the bat by pairing the storms with fun, reinforcing activities or treats!
If your dog is showing subtle signs of storm phobia, don't wait until their anxiety compounds; intervene now and help them through their anxiety with the tips listed above.