I have two dogs and the recent thunderstorms in Melbourne have prompted me to write to you. One of my dogs goes crazy barking and destroying my house during a storm, I become worried when a storm is coming and I know I will be out for the day. Is there anything I can do for him when I am not at home?
Yes, we have had some pretty bad thunderstorms lately and many dogs also have this reaction to fireworks, which at this time of year, will also cause some problems.
Research has been unable to discover the exact reason as to why some dogs are scared of storms. One hypothesis is that dogs who are afraid of storm activity are so because of the electrical charges in the air and the drop in barometric pressure. This makes a storm phobia different to other noise phobias in that treatment through desensitisation (the use of tapes with storm noises) may not be effective. Another theory is that owners contribute to their dogs fear by being fearful themselves and reinforcing their dogs behaviour through attention giving behaviour.
The kinds of behaviour seen by dogs that have a phobia to storms or other loud noises can include barking, panting, dilated pupils, attempts at escape, trembling, seeking owners attention, destructiveness, salivating and/or uncontrollable eliminating and hiding. These responses are often learned and become self-reinforcing, that is, when the dog engages in such behaviour it helps them to alleviate stress. The disadvantage of this is that often the behaviours can become worse with each storm or event, and therefore more difficult to treat.
The earlier you can recognise your dog has this kind of fear the easier it will be to treat. Become familiar with canine body language so you can recognise discomfort before it becomes full blown anxiety. Engage your dog in their favourite activity before they have a fear response and by also reinforcing any behaviour that is not a fear response during the event. This is great for puppies and dogs whose responses are not extreme. However, there is a disadvantage to this in that you need to be with your dog during, before, and after the event.
Another option to treat this fear is to make use of the many calming products available for dogs prone to anxiety. These include DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) plug-ins which disperse a calming pheromone throughout your home. These can be purchased through your vet or pet shop. You could also try a specific anxiety reducing coat (there are many on the market) that your dog wears as a way to reduce anxiety, some even have anti-static layers to assist with reducing the electricity in the atmosphere around your dog. These products are great because you do not have to be home to administer, and they will do no harm to your dog should you anticipate a storm coming.
Another option is to medicate. Your vet or veterinary behaviourist can prescribe such medication that can depress your dogs sensitivity to fearful events. However, these medications often take a while to work, can be an ongoing expense, and rely on you to administer them before a storm.
Todd, given the sound of your dogs’ level of anxiety during a storm, a combination of the above treatments would be your best shot at reducing your dogs’ anxiety. My advice to you would be to engage a veterinary behaviourist so they can work with you to treat your dog and hopefully greatly improve your dogs’ response to storms.
Wallentine, D.K (2008) Thunderstorm Phobia In Dogs: A Thesis. Manhatten, Kansas.