Help, the Sky is Falling

It is that time of year that people with thunder phobic dogs dread. First comes the 4th of July, then comes summer-time thunderstorms. Many of you have dogs that can predict a storm. They start to drool and pant. I always knew when a storm was coming when Pharaoh was alive because he would come find me and just stand there panting and drooling and staring at me. A previous dog, Rocky, would jump into the bathtub when a storm was approaching. I worked with a foster dog who was known to go through windows and get explosive diarrhea during storms. Luckily, all three of my current dogs are fine with thunderstorms and fireworks – good thing because I live in the North Side and we hear fireworks from the Pirates and Steelers and other festivals year round.

No one knows for sure what causes dogs to fear storms. Some theorize it is the change in barometric pressure. Some theorize it is the sound of thunder and lightning. The good news is there are things you can do for your dog. I will group my advice into behavioral, homeopathic, and medical.

Regarding helping your grey behaviorally, there is a lot of controversy in the dog training field about how you should act around your dog. Most trainers will tell you not to pet your dog or talk to your dog as you will only reinforce their fear. But, many behaviorists who are studying dogs’ emotions are now saying that is an old wife’s tale as you cannot reinforce fear. Remember how you felt as a child when something scared you and you ran to your mother for comfort? Did the comfort your mother gave you make you feel better? Did it make you more scared of whatever had just happened? Most people will probably say they felt comforted by their mother. Therefore, I tell people it is ok to comfort your grey when he/she is scared. I think it is probably better to tell the dog he/she is going to be ok in a confident manner and tone rather than in “what a poor baby” tone, though.

It sometimes helps to try to engage your grey in something he/she really likes to do right before a storm hits. If there is any game he/she likes, play it. If he/she likes to be trained – take this time to teach him/her some goofy tricks. The object is to try to keep the grey feeling good emotionally.

Try using a clicker. Each time thunder or lightening hits, click and treat. It might take multiple sessions before your grey starts taking treats, though. Don’t give up. Buy thunderstorm tapes and play them at a really low level and slowly increase the volume. Do not play the tapes at a volume that affects your grey. The object is to play them over and over again until it is second nature and no big deal. Then, slowly increase the volume. You can also feed the dog its favorite treat while you are playing the thunderstorm tape so he/she starts to associate the sounds of a storm with good things happening. You can order thunderstorm tapes on the internet. You can get “Sound Sensibilities” at www.hanaleipets.com (click on “training” in the online catalogue), Legacy Canine Behavior and Training “Sounds Good” CD at www.legacycanine.com, or Fearless Dog Audio Behavioral Therapy at http://www.learningdog.com/catalog/item/828361/426842.htm.

Other behavioral interventions you can try are to allow your grey to pick a safe place – sometimes dogs like retreating into the basement/a dark closet. Some dogs like to be able to have access to the bathtub as well. Try increasing your grey’s exercise so he/she is tired when a thunderstorm is about to hit. Exercise also increases a body’s serotonin levels which might make the grey feel better in general. Try offering your grey a kong stuffed with peanut butter or cream cheese right before a storm hits. Try turning the tv/radio on loudly before a thunderstorm hits. All of these behavioral interventions are an attempt to try to make your grey feel better about the approaching storm.

There are many homeopathic remedies you can try. By “homeopathic” I mean, over the counter remedies. Many are considered “natural” because they are derivatives of things that occur naturally in the environment. I would recommend before using any of these remedies, you do some research. I am only mentioning them here because there have been anecdotal accounts of them helping with thunderstorm anxiety. I would never mention something in an article if I felt it was dangerous, but I am not at all warranting that just because something is natural, it is completely safe. That being said, I have heard accounts of each of these being safely used with positive effects. Many of the remedies listed can be obtained at GNC or at a place like the East End Co-Op, Whole Foods or Right by Nature.

L-theanine is an amino acid derivative that is found in tea. It has been found to reduce anxiety and enhance moods. L-tryptophin is another amino acid commonly found in foods such as chocolate and turkey. It has the effect of increasing serotonin in the brain and is commonly used as a sleep aid. Rescue Remedy (this can also be obtained at Animal Friends on Camp Horne Road) is a Bach Flower Remedy which is a flower essence and can be given directly on the grey’s tongue or in his/her water. Aconite is a Nelson Bach Flower remedy – another flower essence. The only place I know to find this locally is on the internet or Pretty Bird in Millvale (I think this is where they moved). It is commonly used in birds who pluck their feathers, but has been known to help dogs who have noise phobias. Chill Out Spray (also found at Animal Friends or Burton’s Pets) is a mist that you can spray on the dog’s collar or on his/her bedding that combines essential oils such as lavender and chamomile. Melatonin also sometimes can help with thunderstorm anxiety. I have heard that the essential oil of peppermint extract can be placed directly on the pads of the dog’s feet. And, DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) has collars, sprays and plug ins. DAP was created by veterinarians to help dogs showing anxiety. The pheromone is what is secreted by nursing mother dogs to calm their puppies.

Sometimes greys respond well to wearing a tight t-shirt. There are commercial wraps you can buy such as the “Anxiety Wrap” and the “Storm Defender Cape.” I bought Pharaoh a Storm Defender Cape and other than making him look like Little Red Riding Hood, it had no effect on him, but a friend is currently borrowing it and states that it really helps her rottie mix during storms. I tried Reiki on my foster dog without much success, but others have mentioned Reiki to work with their dogs. Reiki is an alternative medicine technique based upon energy heeling that is said to help with heeling and relaxation.

If none of the above mentioned techniques help your dog, I would recommend discussing further options with your veterinarian. Veterinarians commonly prescribe Xanax and other drugs such as Prozac/Reconcile for dogs having severe reactions to thunderstorms. Xanax would be taken only during a thunderstorm and Prozac/Reconcile is taken every day. I saw a vet behaviorist, Karen Overall, speak one time and she recommended against the use of the commonly prescribed tranquilizer acepromazine. She indicated that most dogs appear to be calm on the outside while using acepromazine, but inside their hearts are racing indicating it does not calm the dog internally. But, I am not a veterinarian, that is why I recommend you talk to your veterinarian about medication options should any of the above options fail to decrease your grey’s thunderstorm phobia. Carol Butler at Tender Touch has started seeing behavioral clients. If your vet does not have much behavioral expertise, it might be worth a consult with her.

I hope this article has given you some ideas about how to decrease your grey’s anxiety around thunderstorms. To see your grey suffer through storms is heartbreaking. Try some of the above mentioned options to see if anything can make him/her feel better during the next storm.

Lilian Akin, CPDT

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