A Dog Tail About a Thunderstorm

My dog Gus is scared of thunderstorms. He knows when one is coming our way and begins to pant and pace.  He becomes anxious and hyperactive. If he is outside when the thunder first rumbles, he tries to chase it away by barking and running wildly around the yard. I have a relative whose huge pit bull is so scared of thunderstorms, he hides in the bathtub and won’t get out until the storm is over.

These are just some of the ways that our dogs can react to thunderstorms. Dogs that are frightened of thunderstorms can exhibit a range of behaviors from mild to severe. Some behaviors can even be dangerous, not just for the dog, but for those around them.

I’m going to tell you a ‘tail’ about something that happened to me, my dog, and another dog just after a bad thunderstorm several years ago. Once the thunderstorm was over, the sky brightened and I took two of my dogs for a walk (not Gus, of course, as he was still in recovery mode)!  We visited a local park not far from my house. We were walking on the path when a stray dog approached. He stopped and growled at my dogs. One of my dogs, Gizmo, growled back – not a good idea on his part, since ‘my’ growler is 18 lbs. verses the 60 or so lbs. the other dog was carrying – but that’s Gizmo, always thinking big… Before I could even turn away, the other dog attacked Gizmo. He went straight for Gizmo’s throat. Instinct made me grab Gizmo’s collar to yank him out of harm’s way.  The attacking dog’s jaws snapped shut on my hand, instead of Gizmo’s throat, saving his life, but badly injuring my hand.  It was over in a flash. The stray dog ran off across the street and into the woods.  I looked down at Gizmo and he was covered in blood. I was terrified that the attack had injured him, but then realized the blood was mine.  I went home, where my husband was horrified to see us coming through the door as if the Hounds of the Baskervilles were behind us (maybe they were…).

We checked Gizmo over again for injuries (there were none) and took stock of my hand (still bleeding and beginning to swell).  A trip to the ER was in order (not my favorite way to spend an evening…).  Once the wound was cleaned up and the hand examined, the doctor cleared his throat and told me that worse was yet to come. The long and short of it was that, since there was no way to identify the stray, hence no way to tell if he had been vaccinated against rabies, I had to begin the rabies series of vaccines. Believe me when I say that they are as painful as they say.  Enough said.

I reported the incident to Animal Control.  They looked for the dog after the incident, with no luck.  We are both of the opinion that the dog may not be a ‘homeless stray’ but a dog with a home who was scared by the thunderstorm and escaped from his yard. He probably ran home, scared and tired, just showing up on the front doorstep, with no one the wiser. Who knows how close he came to getting hit by a car or causing an accident on the way. This is not an isolated incident. Dogs suffering from thunderstorm phobia or startled by repeated loud noises such as fireworks can easily harm themselves or others, either intentionally or by accident. 

The reason I’m telling you this story is so that you can see that untreated canine thunderstorm phobia can be a serious threat, not just to your dog, but to those with whom he comes in contact. If you have a dog that suffers from thunderstorm phobia, or reacts badly to fireworks or other repeated loud noises, there are things that you can do, both to help your dog and to safeguard him and those around him.

Often, fear of thunderstorms and loud noises begins gradually, and is reinforced by those around the dog. If you react to the storm/noise, so will your dog. If you comfort him, pet him, hold him, give him treats, etc. during the incident, then you are reinforcing his fear, not reducing it, and his fear will continue and probably worsen.  The best thing to do for your dog during a storm is to go about your normal routine.  Talk, walk and move around in a natural manner. This continuation in routine will help reassure your dog that things may not be so bad, after all.

If your dog has already developed a full-blown phobia, there are various avenues of approach that may help:

  • First, never, never leave your dog unattended in your back yard when a thunderstorm is on the way or in progress.  Shelton Animal Control Officer Sheryl Taylor says: “Don’t put your faith in a fence. If a dog gets scared, it will get out.  They often know a storm is coming before we do.” So pay attention to the weather, and to your dog’s behavior.  If there are reports of a storm coming through, and your dog begins to exhibit nervousness, then keep him inside with you. If he has to go out for potties, put him on a leash and take him for a short visit to the yard to do so, and then bring him inside.
  • If your dog goes into ‘recluse’ mode during storms, then provide him with a safe, comfortable place to hide.  Cover his crate with a blanket, or put his bed in a quiet spot, then leave him alone.
  • If your dog becomes ‘Velcro puppy’ during a storm and wants to follow you around, then let him.  If he wants to lay by your side, that’s fine, too.  Just remember to try to stay relaxed yourself.  Dogs can sense our fear and anxiety and will react to it. Keep your words and actions as normal as possible. 
  • Sometimes distraction works.  Try playing calming music loud enough to muffle the sounds of the storm.  If your dog loves to play, and is willing, a game of tug or fetch (in the house, of course) might get his mind off the storm and on to better things.
  • If your dog’s thunderstorm phobia is extreme, you might want to consider a more active approach. There are various tools and methods that are available to you. 
    • Try a outfitting your dog with a Thundershirt.  A Thundershirt is a type of close-fitting vest that provides gentle but constant pressure to the back, chest and belly areas.  For many dogs, this has been shown to reduce anxiety and calm nerves.  I have known dogs for which the Thundershirt was a lifesaver.  Find out more at http://www.thundershirt.com
    • Try using a Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) product such as ComfortZone. These pheromone products mimic the pheromones secreted by mother dogs when nursing and can help reduce anxiety and stress even in adult dogs.  Visit http://www.petcomfortzone.com for details.
    • If you want to take a natural approach, try using an herbal therapy such as Bach’s Rescue Remedy.  Rescue Remedy is an herbal mixture that can help with many types of stress and anxiety related behaviors in dogs (and other pet animals). Most good pet shops, including H3 Pet Supply, located at 350 Bridgeport Avenue in Shelton, stock this excellent product.
    • If none of the above works for your dog, and his anxiety is extreme, consider medication and/or desensitization therapy. Desensitization therapy, also called reconditioning, should only be undertaken with the guidance of an experienced veterinary canine behavioral therapist. Medications such as Xanax or Valium can also be an appropriate treatment.

Thunderstorms aren’t the only loud events that can cause anxiety and stress behavior in our dogs.  Things such as fireworks, loud home repairs or construction work can produce similar results.  Don’t forget that the fireworks are coming to our area shortly, for the Memorial Day and July 4th holidays. I spent one July 4th helping a friend hunt for her dog after it jumped her fence during the fireworks, so I have first-hand experience of this!  Fortunately, the dog came home a few hours later. He just appeared on the front porch, scared and tired.  (Sound familiar?)

Above all, remember that our pets are extremely sensitive to the environment around them.  Their hearing is acute, so sounds that we can handle may be too much for them and they are sensitive to barometric pressure, so they will sense a storm coming long before we do.  If they are afraid, they may react in ways that cause stress or even harm to themselves or others.  By being sensitive to our dog’s needs, and taking precautionary or proactive measures, as necessary, we can help our dogs ‘weather the storms’ safely and with less stress.

Mandy Oram has been working with pets for over 25 years.  She is active in the local animal rescue community.  She is the owner of The Fairy Dogmother, a unique house-call dog grooming and training service in San Antonio, TX. Visit her at www.thefairydogmothertx.com.

A Dog Tail About a Thunderstorm

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