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Dos & Dont’s For Handling Thunder With Dogs

As published in Canadian Dogs Annual
Dos & Dont’s For Handling Thunder With Dogs

A beautiful summer afternoon can take a terrifying turn for dogs with storm phobias. While some don’t turn a hair at thunder and lightning, others find it a frightening and stressful experience. Instead of letting your dog frantically pace, pant or try to hide under the bed, take some steps to ease her anxiety.

Behaviorial conditioning
Dr. Suzanne Hetts, a certified applied animal behaviorist, starts to address a dog’s fears by determining which aspect of a storm frightens her the most – is it the thunder, the wind, a change in barometric pressure, or certain smells?

If the problem is thunder, Dr. Hetts recommends a program of counter conditioning and desensitization. “Through gradual exposure, you create an easier version of the stimuli the dog is scared of, like a recording of thunder at low volume, paired with something that makes the dog happy, like a food treat, playing ball or petting,” she says. “You gradually make it more intense until it’s like the real thing. Then the real thing no longer elicits fear because you’ve replaced it with something good.”

She adds that this method works best if you can prevent the dog from experiencing a real storm before training is complete. This means you need to start before storm season arrives and make a dedication to practice. “The time to work on this is not in the middle of storm season,” says Dr. Hetts.

Calming with flowers
For another approach, veterinarian Dr. Mark Newkirk suggests Bach flower remedies. Aspen is the classic remedy for storm phobias. “If you’re going to work, you can put some Aspen in the dog’s water bowl, and even if the storm comes six hours later, as he drinks all day, he gets it in his system on his own,” says Dr. Newkirk. “If you’re home and a storm is coming, you can give it orally.”

Bach flower remedies are odorless and tasteless and come in liquid form. “You can give a few drops every few minutes for as long as it takes to calm a dog down,” says Dr. Newkirk.

Aspen is just one of 38 Bach flower remedies. You may find a different one, such as Rescue Remedy or Mimulus, suits your dog’s needs better. Dr. Newkirk sometimes combines flower remedies with herbs such as valerian, skullcap or St. John’s wort to mellow a frightened dog without drugging him.

Emotional allergies
Dr. Newkirk has also had success using Nambudripad allergy elimination therapy (NAET). This therapy works under the theory that most problems are caused by undiagnosed allergies, and that acupressure – developed for humans but adapted for animal therapy – treats the allergies. “Acupressure can change emotions,” says Dr. Newkirk. “Emotion is a phobia, and why should a noise cause you an emotional allergy? Through acupressure, you can reduce or eliminate that fear entirely.”

Wrap him up
Relief for your dog may also be found through the use of an Anxiety Wrap, which applies slight, maintained pressure around a large portion of an animal’s body. The gentle pressure indirectly affects the central nervous system and this raises the dog’s anxiety threshold. This means more stimuli is required to cause the dog to react.

“Parents have seen this effect by swaddling their babies,” says Susan Sharpe, who created the wrap. “Swaddling is another form of ‘maintained pressure’ in action. While some dogs relax, others sleep through storms wearing their Anxiety Wraps. It’s a wonderful sight to see thunder phobic dogs relaxed and sleeping through a storm.”

Why do some dogs develop storm phobia while others hardly seem to notice the thunder and lightning? According to Dr. Hetts, research conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Shull at the University of Tennessee suggests there might be a genetic cause.

Dr. Newkirk believes there is also usually an environmental cause. “There’s usually some inciting thing going on,” he says. “The noise is there, yes, but something else has happened – a light flickered or the owner left and the storm started right afterward. It usually develops as a dog grows up. I’ve never seen it in a puppy.”

Whatever the cause, rest assured there’s a solution to keep your dog from feeling scared during summer storms.

Dos and don’ts
DO try to create a safe place from the storm, such as an interior room or basement where the dog can’t see lightening or hear thunder. A machine playing white noise can also help.

DON’T pull a fearful dog from his hiding spot. “If he wants to hide in a closet or cage, he retreated there because he feels safe,” says Dr. Newkirk. “Don’t pull him out to sit on the couch with you.”

DO talk to a frightened dog in a calm, reassuring voice. “Don’t be overly anxious because your dog is,” says Dr. Newkirk. “If you’re afraid, you don’t want to be with someone else who’s afraid; you want a leader.”

DON’T crate a dog who is clawing at doors or walls in an attempt to prevent him from being destructive. “If he’s that fearful, confining him will only panic him more,” says Dr. Hetts. “He could get hurt trying to get out.”

DON’T punish a dog who has destroyed something in a panic.

DO give your dog positive attention. “If you can massage the ears, play ball, talk in a calming voice or give a body massage, that will help him relax,” says Dr. Hetts.

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