Our dog’s world is much different from ours. Their sense of smell is 1000 times better than our own (they can smell something we have cleaned off the floor 6 weeks ago!) and their hearing is far more acute . It’s not surprising then, that dogs seem to pick up on impending weather changes and thunderstorms much before we do. Dogs detect the changes in electrostatic charges of the atmosphere and barometric pressure changes as well as detecting low frequency noises. To a dog, a thunderstorm represents a mini environmental disaster, several hours before we even know it’s on its way!
Owners of pooches with a thunderstorm phobia often have tales of their pets’ frantic behaviour. Gardens are dug up, furniture overturned and some dogs will defecate and urinate in the house and over the furniture. Some will even jump through plate glass windows in order to escape. The cause of thunderstorm anxiety may be both hereditary and learnt behaviour. Most commonly affected breeds include the herding dogs such as German Shepherds and Collies, the hounds-beagles and Bassets, as well as Labradors and Golden Retrievers. Herding dogs are bred to be highly reactive and also to hide fear. This mix is likely to result in high anxiety.
These dogs can be helped to overcome their fear using a training process called systemic desensitisation and counter-conditioning. Basically, this involves exposing the dog to gradual increases in loudness of the thunderstorm noise using a tape recording and rewarding the dog for being relaxed when it is played.
Even if the dog gets upset well before the storm can be heard by people, it is still worthwhile desensitising him to the noise. It is likely that the dog will be less upset when the storm is overhead, and therefore may not react as badly when he knows it is approaching.
Desensitisation tapes and CD’s can be purchased from your local vet. Tapes need to be played very softly at first, rewarding the dog for not reacting. Gradually increase the loudness and reward for relaxed behaviour each time. If the dog reacts, it means the noise has become too loud too quickly and you will have to go back a few steps. It is wise to have veterinary guidance for this program.
There are some other things you can do to help your dog. Try to make sure your dog always has a place to go for shelter. Animals dig and become destructive because they are searching for a safe place, and a good kennel, or den with some sound proofing will help. Never baby- talk to your dog through a storm. This is just a signal to him that the fear is OK. Interestingly, the most recent studies indicate that dogs with another dog in the household tend to manage their fear of storms better than single dogs do, even though the unaffected dog completely ignored the anxious dog during the storm. If you’re game, you could get your frightened friend a pal.
A pheromone diffuser called Adapil (dog appeasing pheromone) may also be helpful. This is a substance released by the lactating female dog that functions to calm puppies in times of stress. It has been found to successfully calm dogs in stressful environments and unpredictable situations. This is available through vets, on prescription.
Sometimes it will be necessary to tranquilise the dog during the first few training sessions. Various drugs are available and your vet will prescribe them, if needed, depending on whether the dog is better suited to sedation or anti anxiety medication.