Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher
OFF THE LEASH
So we made it through the 4th of July, was it uneventful for your pets? If the fireworks bothered them, it is time to think about storm proofing for them. This may involve a special crate, room, music or medication, based on the severity. Don’t write off storm phobias, because they tend to get worse as the years go by, and each untreated episode will make the next worse. Your dog shivering in the corner isn’t necessarily disruptive to you, but their stress is sky high, and many dogs’ reactions will escalate with time. That means intervening now will save you from having chewed shoes, pee on the floor or a wall eaten through down the line. Not to mention, physiological stress has a real impact on health.
Anxiety comes in all shapes and sizes. Many types of anxiety improve with increased exercise and behavior modification. Noise phobias certainly benefit from these, but can be harder to control on their own. Seeking the help of a behaviorist is never a bad idea, but I will go over some simpler ideas to start with.
Owners often can actually make these things worse without meaning to! We want to make sure we are there to reassure our dogs, but not there to reinforce them. What do I mean? If you sit and say “good dog, good dog, good dog” over and over while your dog does something that we don’t want to continue, you may actually be making it worse. We can also find ourselves anticipating their fear. They read this and realize there really is something to be afraid of. If your dog comes to you, ask them to do a simple task, then praise them and stay near them. If they like vocals, sing a song or read out loud. When your mind is elsewhere but you are still focused on them, that is ideal.
Cover the noise
Many dogs sense the barometric pressure changing before storms, but those without noise phobias typically don’t care. This means that although we can’t control the weather (but wouldn’t that be nice?!) we can help avoid the loud parts.
Thunder is louder near windows or doors, so try to find a safe space towards the middle of the house. Furnished basements are also great. If your dog has a crate they typically like, cover it with a blanket and make that easily accessible. Put a radio or white-noise machine near the crate or their safe space. Though thunder will be louder than this, if you can take some of the bang out of it your dog will appreciate it.
Dogs will often find a space that makes them feel comfortable. For instance, my dog wants to get under the bed. Balance this response. We want them to feel safe and find a space that isn’t too anxiety prone (like trying to hide under the stove or behind big cabinets.)
Treat the fear
This can be done in many ways. I like to start with low-key things first. This is typically the tight-fitting shirts, doing all of the above, and trying herbal remedies. There are several treats that contain appropriate doses of herbs (like valerian root) and some other supplements available through your vet. Many of these contain extracts of things like milk proteins and plants. Do not attempt to strike out and buy your own, these should be purchased through a controlled source so that you know the values and dosing are correct.
Finally, some dogs do require pharmaceutical intervention. Treating the anxiety earlier rather than waiting several summers will benefit your dog. The trick to treating storm phobias with medication is finding one that treats anxiety rather than just sedating them. Some medications may make your dog seem less anxious, but only by making them sleepy. The goal isn’t to have a tired dog that is terrified but can’t react, it is to reduce their fear.
There are dogs that only require medication for storms, and dogs that benefit from anxiety meds all summer. Typically, we try the least amount possible and work with clients based on their dogs’ reactions. Ideally, as you work through storm phobias with medication and stress reduction these dogs eventually stop reacting to storms. This doesn’t always work, but the goal is to keep your dog in as low a state of anxiety as possible.