By Courtney Emken
co-written by Bart Emken, CPDT-KA & Jen Larson, KPA-CTP
Storms can be pretty scary, for dogs and people alike. What keeps us calm is that we trust our homes will keep us safe. To many dogs, this doesn’t matter and provides no relief or shelter from the mental storm.
While storm phobia is a common issue among dogs, there are things you can do to help. However, the phobia can grow in severity if left untreated. It usually does not weaken on its own. So it’s up to us to help our dogs overcome their fears.
First Steps: Assessing Your Dog’s Fear Anxiety Level
Your approach for relieving your dog’s fear depends on the severity of their phobia. Before you start fixing the problem, you need to determine whether it’s mild, moderate, or severe.
As the strength of their anxiety increases, so too will the frequency and intensity of their symptoms. The most common behaviors in response to a thunderstorm are:
- Wanting to be near you
- Excessive barking
- Wide eyes
These are signs that your dog feels threatened, typical of mild to moderate anxiety. As their stress climbs, they begin to exhibit much more desperate and frightened reactions, such as:
- Destroying property
- Injuring themselves
- Urinary incontinence
- Fecal incontinence
- Defensive behavior
- Attempts to escape
These are indicators of severe anxiety, and will warrant a vet or animal behaviorist visit. These dogs are unable to calm themselves during a thunderstorm and need medical attention before they seriously hurt themselves or others.
The causes of storm phobia are varied. It can be difficult to determine what’s provoking your dog’s reaction. Common sources include:
- Little to no socialization to storms as a puppy
- A fear of storms inherited genetically
- Picking up on people’s fear cues during storms
- An associated fear of loud sounds (like fireworks or gunshots)
Luckily, whatever the initial cause of a dog’s fear may be, the treatment methods are similar.
How To Help: Counter Conditioning Your Dog’s Fear Response
The most important thing you can do is to make the storm a positive experience. This may sound somewhat difficult, but using counter-conditioning is actually pretty easy. You do it every day without realizing it.
For instance, we treat or praise dogs for listening to our cues. When we do this, we’re using positive reinforcement to encourage a behavior. With counter-conditioning you’re doing the same thing, but in order to desensitize a negative stimulus instead.
So when the next storm comes rolling around, throw a bacon party for your dog! They may still be anxious, but there’s a good chance the bacon will distract them. Throw enough bacon parties and they may even begin to find storms fun!
Also, certain types of music have been clinically tested for reducing anxiety in dogs. Specially composed for canines, these tracks use a beats per minute which simulates a dog’s resting heart rate. Coupled with soothing tones, this reduces stress and promotes comfort.
Ensuring that your dog has a safe spot in advance also helps them deal with their fear. Crate training is great for this. Your dog has a little comfy cave they can retreat to, chomp on a peanut butter Kong, and ride out the storm.
What Are Some Effective Management Tools For Fighting Storm Phobia?
Thundershirts are a good management tool if your dog responds well to them. They’re a specialized compression jacket velcroed around their body. These shirts simulate the sensation of being held, which can calm dogs considerably.
You can use Rescue Remedy, an herbal supplement given to calm both cats and dogs. Just put a few drops into their water bowl and it should relax them. For a more immediate application, place a couple drops directly under their tongue.
If a dog’s anxiety is severe enough, some people may recommend prescription drugs to calm them. A few of the most commonly prescribed medications are:
However, there’s significant controversy about the use of these drugs. They render a dog so sedated that they can’t fully function. And while they may appear calm, they’re still just as terrified. That’s why we don’t recommend using such powerful drugs like Acepromazine for storm anxiety.
There are many other mild options available that can still produce calming results. These often come in the form of sprays or diffusers. Some common relaxing compounds are:
We actually offer a lot of these products at our new Trainquility Daycare. We designed this program specifically for anxious dogs to enjoy a relaxing spa-like experience.
If you have any other questions or want a little advice for relaxing your dog, please contact us today.
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