Helping Your Dog During Thunderstorms
Many dogs have anxiety about thunderstorms, one that can not only make storms unpleasant for them but can cause severe anxiety that can lead to damage to your house and injury to your dog. We know firsthand; our late Australian cattle dog, Alby, had a terrible fear of thunderstorms and it was awful to see her anxiety begin as a storm approached.
But there are steps you can take to make the storm more bearable for your dog. Some dog lovers recommend wraps, a technique much like swaddling a baby, to give the dog a feeling of security.
Susan Sharpe, ADPT, CDPT and veteran dog trainer, invented The Anxiety Wrap (photo, right), a stretchable fabric an animal wears like a bodysuit to provide a gentle pressure and help relieve the fear created by a thunderstorm. Sharpe offers several tips for helping your dog deal with thunderstorm anxiety:
“First, determine what part of the storm triggers your dog’s reaction.” The trainer uses the example of a dog that chases and barks at the lightning or thunder through the house. “This dog might fare better in a crate with a cover over it to help minimize the lightning while placing a radio or television on or near the crate to help with the thunder. Be sure to observe any crated dog during distress as it may increase his anxiety.”
Second, see if your dog can find a safe place where he can remain calm through the storm. “Sometimes this is the bathroom, sometimes it’s the closet. As long as the occupants of the house are okay with the location of the safe place and the dog remains calm without undergoing further trauma, this is an acceptable solution.”
If a safe place can’t be found, Sharpe suggests, “You might try attaching the leash and walking your dog through the house, asking him to perform learned behaviors or go up and down stairs, etc. Redirecting your dog’s focus helps him let go of his perceived danger. Make your house an obstacle course and give the dog juicy treats for maneuvering through, especially during a stressful situation. Gently engage your dog in whatever his favorite activity is whether it’s a game of fetch or hide and seek.” The trainer notes that some dogs just can’t be refocused on other activities, regardless of the treats, when their sense of what they perceive as danger is so strong.
And don’t give up if you don’t see improvement right away. Ms. Sharpe explains, “Any positive exercise you can do helps to create a better association between your dog and the storm.”
The most important thing, Sharpe cautions, is to remain as neutral as possible if interacting with the dog. “Often we humans will try to reassure our dogs by talking in an animated way, sitting with, hugging, and petting them,” she explains. “Unfortunately, giving them special attention even with the best of intentions can actually reinforce their fearful behavior. To a dog, this out-of-the-normal behavior can justify his anxiety. After all, something must be wrong or his human wouldn’t be making such a fuss. Also be sure to never punish the dog for his fearful behavior.”
Even better than trying to help your dog get over a thunderstorm fear is to stop it before it ever starts by working with your puppy during that first year. Along with extensive socialization, Sharpe recommends playing ball or other fun activities with the puppy whenever a storm occurs while the puppy is not showing any signs of thunderstorm fear.
Photograph courtesy The Anxiety Wrap