Does your dog hate storms? Are they just a bit worried or trembling, puffing and panting and walking up and down when they hear thunder? Scratching at the door to get inside? Whining or crying? Destroying their bed? Damaging their nose or claws trying to get somewhere? Escaping for the yard? Ripping off the neighbours security screen or chewing thru gyprock walls?
They have storm phobia, an irrational and exaggerated response to a storm. Many dogs will have both storm and noise phobias like to fireworks, mozzy zappers, crackling BBQ coals, Greenbank live fire range noise, cars backfiring, nail guns in the distance etc. Often they also have other anxieties mixed in such as separation anxiety.
Storm phobias can be very frustrating and even mild signs should be taken seriously as the behaviour tends to get worse as the years go on. Putting in place a few strategies early can make a big difference in the long run.
As with any phobia the best thing to do is avoid the trigger. However with QLD weather that is pretty much impossible and so instead we are aiming to reduce the intensity of the trigger. It is important to be prepared however and keep an eye on weather reports to help predict the days that are high risk for your animal. If you are away during a high risk day it may be possible to arrange care for you storm phobic pet with a friend or relative or even a doggy daycare!!
At the Bloomin’ Vet we strongly recommend ThunderShirts (as modelled by Foxy in the image below). We have many happy clients that rely on these through the storm season to help keep their animals calm and in control. We think 60-70% of storm phobic dogs benefit significantly from these compression vests. The shirt is very snug fitting, and causes a physiologically measurable release of serotonin in the brain to help keep the pet calm.
Crate training is another very effective strategy to help dogs feel safe and secure. In more extreme cases we recommend white noise and even ‘Thunderhuts’( sound reducing hutches) to help dogs cope with their phobias. All these strategies are aimed at decreasing the intensity of the storm experience.
There are also a number of drug interventions that we can talk about that may assist your dog. Depending on the dog and situation short or long term medication may be helpful. It should be noted however that whilst drug therapy can be useful it must be used in combination with other strategies to get the best result as often the dog will simply fight through any medication when truly frightened.
All these interventions work best when implemented at least 30mins prior to the storm event. Often storms are unpredictable and if your dog has already become anxious as he or she has sensed a storm then it is best to follow their lead and let them choose where they are most comfortable.
Desensitization is one strategy that people try but is often unsuccessful. This involves playing storm sounds to the dog slowly increasing the intensity/volume in order to get them ‘used to it’. As storms have many elements including wind, air pressure changes, different smells, rain/lightening playing the noise alone to get them used to it is often unrewarding. Desensitization can, however, work for a noise phobia eg fireworks especially when combined with counter-conditioning.
Counter-conditioning, especially during low grade storms when the dog is more relaxed and able to learn, can be a great technique. This involves trying to create a positive association with storms by playing with them and offering treats when storm sounds occur. Never punish your dog or become frustrated with them if they are showing fearful behaviour during these times as this will only make things worse.
Relaxation training is another technique that can be very helpful. Basically this involves training your dog to settle and relax in its own bed or crate. This training should preferably be performed before storm season, or at least initiated when no storms are about. Training your dog to sit and then ‘drop’ on a bed by rewarding them with lavish praise and treats will help them to make the connection that when they are on their bed they are being ‘good’ and will help them to relax and see it as a wonderful safe place to be. Never punish your dog by sending them to their bed – it must only be seen as a happy and wonderful place where they can predict that they will be safe and ‘good’ for the relaxation to work. This kind of training takes time, effort on the owner’s part and a lot of repetition for it to be effective. Even once the dog has the concept regular, daily repetition is required to keep the effect and anytime your dog is being calm you should be looking to reward this even if you are not in an active training situation.
Overcoming storm phobias requires a lot of commitment and time from owners and often a ‘cure’ is not possible. Instead treatment is aimed at improving responses and helping your frightened pooch to cope with the situation. If you are worried about your dog or you want more information on any of the strategies above then give us a call at the Bloomin’ Vet!