By Michelle Ferrera, DVM
My dog freaks out during thunderstorms. What can I do to help her get through the summer rainstorms?
Storm phobia is unfortunately too common in Florida dogs. They shake, pace, pant, whine, and in worst cases are destructive to their home and themselves at the mere hint of poor weather. One of the biggest mistakes owners make is to hug and “comfort” their dogs and tell them “it’s OK”. Unfortunately, what the dog hears is, “my behavior is appropriate because my owner is telling me my behavior is OK”, and so inadvertently reinforces the undesirable behavior.
There are many tools to help dogs cope with their fear of storms. The simplest is to create a safe place for your pet to hide. Many of my clients tell me that their dogs want to hide in a shower or in a closet while under a blanket during storms, which helps them cope. For dogs that don’t want to hide, then a training session that reinforces basic obedience commands with plenty of treats can help distract from the noise outdoors. Another category of options includes the thunder shirt, the anxiety wrap, or the storm defender cape. These all either apply pressure to the body or dissipate static electricity to help your dog cope with anxiety. A different tool is the DAP or dog appeasement pheromone. It simulates the phermone that mother dogs emit when caring for their puppies, and can help dogs to feel safe. Short term anti-anxiety medications can be obtained from your veterinarian with a prescription if more conservative measures are not effective.
Getting an early start on storm phobia by using a CD of storm sounds set on low volume and using treats to reward relaxed behavior can be done in the non-storm season to “countercondition” the fearful behavior. The volume of the CD can be increased as your dog is able to tolerate and relax during the noise. You may need the help of a veterinary behaviorist or a specially skilled dog trainer to implement a counter conditioning program. Don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian for advice on how to best help your pet cope with its fear.