Finally, it feels like the warmer weather is here! With spring time just around the corner, we are looking forward to spending more time outdoors with our furry companions. Unfortunately, with the warmer weather and the snow melting also comes rain and thunderstorms, which for some of our dogs is terrifying. Most people have learned to accept that it is normal for their dog to hide under the table or trembling in the corner during a loud thunderstorm, but can something be done to help them?
These dogs that pant, pace, or drool during thunderstorms have what is called a noise sensitivity, which is anxiety, fear, and phobia associated with sounds. Dog that have a noise sensitivity will not learn to get over it and it usually gets worse as they get older. Dogs should never be punished for an anxious or fearful behavior. Using punishment will only make your dog even more fearful in the future, but there are many things that we can do to help our terrified dogs during a thunderstorm.
First, the best way to avoid noise sensitivities is to prevent them. Expose your dog to a variety of different sounds when she is young. Make these exposures fun by giving your dog treats during loud noises, such as thunderstorms. Second, offer a new toy that resembles her favorite type of toys before the storm. Kong toys make great long lasting treats; put your dog’s favorite canned food inside the Kong and freeze it to make it last even longer. Try to distract your dog by playing a game, like tug or fetch. You can also create a safe place for your dog to rest and associate this location with calming activities, such as massage. Ideally, you create this calm place by teaching your dog to go there on request when there is no scary noise, such as thunderstorms. Some dogs will do better if you close the windows and cover them to block the lightning and soften the sound of thunder. Lastly, turn on classical music to help drown out the sound of thunder with a calming sound. You can find some good examples at Through a Dog’s Ear (throughadogsear.com), which makes CDs that have musical elements that can reduce a dog’s heart rate and have a calming effect. You can also try a white noise machine or a fan. The key to success is to try these things or engage your dog in activities before the storm occurs and before she gets too anxious.
There are several products that have shown to help dogs with noise sensitivity. Adaptil contains dog appeasing pheromones that can help calm and relax dogs. It comes in a diffuser that can be plugged into an outlet or a collar that is worn. The Thundershirt is a body wrap that fits tightly on the dog and can help calm and decrease anxiety. Another product is the Storm Defender cape. This capelike wrap has a light metallic lining that protects against the electrostatic charge in atmosphere that occurs before a thunderstorm occurs, which triggers a fear response in some dogs.
Finally, you can try a behavior modification program using thunderstorm noise recordings and desensitizing your dog to the sounds. Play the recordings at a very low volume that elicits no anxiety, while giving your dog high value treats. Gradually increase the volume, while giving the treats in the dog’s safe spot. This technique is very time consuming, but when done correctly can be very rewarding for both you and your dog. Also, antianxiety medications may need to be prescribed to help decrease anxiety and facilitate learning. If you would like more information about the behavior modification program or if your dog could benefit from antianxiety medications, please call us to schedule a behavior consult with Dr. Laxen.
Reference: Horwitz, Debra; Ciribassi, John; Dale, Steve, “Decoding Your Dog” American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, 2014