Coping with Storm Anxiety
By Honor Tarpenning, NextDayPets.com Staff
Does your dog panic in the hours before and during a thunderstorm? Storm anxiety can be displayed with relatively minor symptoms like trembling, panting, and drooling; more intense symptoms like hiding, whining, and inappropriate elimination; or even extreme symptoms like destructive behavior, and self injury. It is estimated that one third of dogs exhibit some form of storm anxiety.
It is not known exactly what part of a thunderstorm triggers dogs with storm anxiety; whether it’s the wind, rain, thunder, lightening, ionization, drop in barometric pressure, or the low-frequency rumbles that precede a storm. It has, however, been established that certain dogs are more susceptible to this form of anxiety. Many experts believe that herding breeds, hound breeds, and working breeds are more likely to develop this form of anxiety. It is believed that these dogs, as a result of breeding, react quickly to outside stimuli, but suppress certain undesirable responses. They suppress their aggressive response to the storm, and this manifests in anxiety. It is also widely accepted that rescued dogs are more susceptible to this and other forms of anxiety due to abuse, lack of socialization, and other unpleasant experiences endured prior to adoption.
Some dogs have relatively minor reactions to storm anxiety, but even owners of these dogs should pursue relief of symptoms because it has been found that limited reactions this storm season can lead to escalated reactions next season and eventually, even more generalized fears, like the fear of loud noises over time.
How Can I Help?
As with any other behavior or health issue with your dog, it is best to start with a trip to the vet. Your vet will help you ascertain that storm anxiety is the only anxiety disorder present in your dog. If your pooch is suffering from separation anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder, the treatment and possible medications your vet will suggest will be different. It won’t do any good to just treat your dog for storm anxiety if the problem is actually rooted in another, more general type of anxiety all together.
Your vet may recommend one of several kinds of medications. Prophylactic medications help keep the anxiety response from happening at all, these include anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. Your vet may also recommend a sedative to use on an as-needed basis, to be taken in the hours before a storm comes to relax your dog. There are also many homeopathic, holistic, and herbal remedies that can help relax your dog. Some of these medications include HomeoPet Anxiety and Sleepy Time Calming Tonic.
Although all these forms of medication can be extremely beneficial, experts maintain that a multimodal approach is best. This means that you can’t just medicate your dog and hope the problem will go away; you also have to focus on behavioral therapy to truly take care of the problem.
Desensitization therapy is one widely recognized method of controlling storm anxiety. This consists of playing a CD of storm noises on low volume, and teaching your dog to associate these sounds with positive feelings. The dog is praised and rewarded for calm, relaxed behavior and as he grows more and more comfortable with the sounds, the volume is increased. This is continued until even very loud claps of thunder cease to phase your dog. There are mixed feelings in the training community about this kind of behavior therapy. First of all, this must be done under the direction of a vet or dog behavior expert. Those who do not have a complete understanding of the fear response in dogs can inadvertently make the dog’s storm phobia worse. Also, some believe that since a CD only mimics the sound of a storm, and does not address the whole sensory experience, it is not as beneficial as one would hope. Despite this incredulity, however, most believe that even if desensitization therapy does not completely stop a dog’s storm anxiety, it does teach the dog to associate the sounds of a storm with positive feelings of comfort, safety, and reward, which is at the very least a step in the right direction.
Another way to help your anxious dog is to minimize the sensory factors of a storm. One can turn up the radio or tv, and shut the blinds. You can also teach your dog to find comfort in a “safe zone” like a closet or kennel covered with blankets with a den-like feel which dogs instinctively seek for safety.
It is also helpful to distract your dog when storms are imminent. Provide stuffable toys, like Kongs filled with your dog’s favorite snacks, plugged with peanut butter, and then frozen. Furthermore, you can leash your dog and lead him around the house, requiring him to perform tasks like going through a homemade obstacle course, and rewarding him for their completion. It is important that you not reward your dog for frightened, anxious behavior, so giving him tasks and rewarding good behavior is a great way to distract him and reinforce calm behavior. A storm is a great time for an easy, laid back training session, which will distract your dog. Try working on commands your dog knows well like sit and down.
During storms, use your playtime voice; be high pitched and excited. When you try to coddle your dog, snuggling him and speaking to him in gentle, reassuring tones, you are, in fact, rewarding his fearful behavior. When you allow yourself to be overly concerned for your frightened dog, holding him like a baby and telling him he’s going to be ok, you are effectively justifying his fear. However, if you act fun and playful, as if everything is completely normal, he will pick up on this care-free demeanor and see that there is nothing to be scared of.
Never crate a frightened dog or lock him in a room. A dog in panic mode can seriously injure himself trying to escape a frightening situation. There have been dogs who have destroyed “indestructible” crates, and plowed through plate glass windows to escape confinement when in a panic. Restricting the dog to a particular room or garage during storms will also teach the dog to associate that room with fear and relegation. It is also important that you NEVER punish a dog for fear reactions, even if they eliminate in the house or rip down your drapes; they are not acting out or misbehaving on purpose.
Storm anxiety is not necessarily a life-long disorder. Some dogs don’t develop storm anxiety until later in life. If your dog or puppy is not frightened of storms, reinforce this behavior every chance you get. Whenever storms come, make a habit of storm time being play time. Break out the same super-fun toy every time the dark clouds start to close in and your pup will learn to associate storms with extra-special play time.
Just as with any other training-related issue, you won’t see results over night as you try to help your dog through storm anxiety. As long as you remember to be patient, consistent, and understanding, and follow the advice of your veterinarian, your dog will learn to accept storms as a part of life, and learn to relax and go with the flow.