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8 Ways to Help Your Dog Get Over the Fear of Thunderstorms

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I love a good thunderstorm.  I’ve always thought they were great to watch.  My wife on the other hand doesn’t like them so well.  Funny thing is one of our dogs isn’t affected by them (more my dog), but the other (more her dog) doesn’t like them at all.  In fact she often retreats under the bed when one gets good and loud.

So I was glad to see an article this in month in “The Whole Dog Journal” listing a variety of ways to help thunder-phobic doggies.

Apologies to that rockabilly Eddie Rabbitt, but not everyone loves a rainy night. Especially if there’s thunder and lightning. Fear of thunderstorms – formally called astraphobia – is surprisingly common in dogs; some experts estimate that up to 30 percent are affected with it to some degree or another. (Most cats, apparently, couldn’t care less.) The most severely thunderstorm-phobic dogs can become intensely fearful and panicked, to the point where they become a hazard to themselves.

“I’ve seen them go right through windows, and chew through doors, drywall, even chain-link fences, breaking off their teeth and nails,” says holistic veterinarian Stephen Blake of San Diego. “They get into such a level of panic that they just aren’t thinking.”

In some cases, owners are able to trace a dog’s fear to an identifiable trigger. “Some dogs definitely have experienced something bad that makes them afraid of thunder,” says Nancy A. Dreschel, DVM, PhD, who has studied and written about thunderstorm phobia. As part of her research, Dr. Dreschel, an instructor of companion-animal science at Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, met a dog who slept happily in the family room of his house – until a wood stove in the same room got struck by lightning. He was afraid of storms ever since. And can you blame him?

Often, a conditioned response like that can be reversed, Dr. Dreschel says, through counter-conditioning, that is, pairing the negative stimulus with something the dog enjoys, such as food. It’s the more ambiguous cases, where the dog just seems to develop a thunderstorm fear out of the blue, that are more challenging, because no one really understands what elicited the initial reaction, and the dogs aren’t talking.

“Some theories suggest that there is something aversive about the storm itself,” Dr. Dreschel explains, with guesses ranging from increased static electricity to changes in barometric pressure. “Perhaps there are things in the air that are uncomfortable to the dog, so his skin or his fur hurts. Maybe the storm-associated noise is actually painful to dogs; they hear things that we can’t.”

Another theory suggests that some dogs are genetically predisposed to thunderstorm sensitivity, including Golden Retrievers and some herding breeds.

Ounce of Prevention
It can seem as if the recommendations for preventing these intense reactions to thunderstorms – or at least making them more manageable – are as numerous and varied as the affected dogs themselves. What most everyone can agree on this: There is no sure bet, no tried-and-true cure. What works for one dog might have zero effect on another.

Trial and error, then, is your best bet. Be open-minded and creative in how you approach this problem. Dr. Dreschel recalls that one of the dogs in her study would be terrified of storms while in the house, but, inexplicably, did just fine in the car. While she does not recommend a rain-drenched trip to the minivan for every dog – if it didn’t work, the potential toll on your upholstery could be staggering – she does applaud the spirit behind it.

“It’s a very individual thing,” she says about helping a dog through storm sensitivity. “You just have to keep trying.”

Many veterinarians and behaviorists recommend working to prevent the problem before it begins, by rewarding the dog as a puppy whenever she is exposed to the sights and sounds of a storm. Have lots of extra-special treats on hand; repeated reinforcement teaches the dog that raindrops and thunder claps mean the yummies are on their way.

To desensitize dogs who have exhibited stress behaviors during a storm, Katherine Houpt, DVM, professor emeritus at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York, uses a storm-simulation CD, initially played at low volume. As a reward, “the dog gets something he never gets otherwise – for example, only salami when you do desensitization.” When the dog hears the storm sounds, teach him to go to the safe place where he will ride out the storm. (More on that below.)

In subsequent sessions, gradually increase the volume of the CD. If your dog is taking and eating the treats, then chances are he is coping well, since there is an inverse relationship between stress and appetite. If he stops taking the treats, reduce the audio level until he’s comfortable enough to eat again.

Dr. Houpt recommends adding flashing lights to the desensitization process, recalling one ingenious client who used strobe lights. But most people, she admits, aren’t that zealous. “For the lazier ones, I say play the CD whenever you feed the dog.”

The limitations of the CD storm sounds, of course, are that they are just one sliver of the experience. Dr. Dreschel recalls a storm-sensitive dog who sailed through the audio experience, “but during the first storm of the spring, he ate through a door.” That said, if the CD can desensitize the dog to at least the sound part of the thunderstorm experience, it might lower her overall anxiety – a good thing!

For 7 more ideas see the original article in it’s entirety in The Whole Dog Journal

Source: The Whole Dog Journal

Image Source: Flickr

 

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