It’s summertime and it feels like we’re barreling down Thunderstorm Alley. If your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, summer can feel nightmarish: checking radar every day, worrying that a storm will beat you home from work, hoping your dog doesn’t destroy the house, or panic to the point of self-injury.
Thunderstorm phobia is real.
Schooner reacts poorly to thunder, lightning, wind, and rain despite my best attempts to make rain and thunderstorms a fun time for him. As a young dog, he didn’t mind storms: wind, rain, lightning, or thunder didn’t bother him. Now however, at the first rumble of thunder he starts to tremble, pant, and pace. If he’s got access to the bathroom in the basement, that’s where he prefers to ride out the storm. I consulted with the service dog agency and they reported that he didn’t have any trouble with storms while he was there. We can’t put our finger on what changed in the month or so that he’s been with us, but we’ve implemented an approach that we hope helps ease our big guy’s mind about things that go boom in the night.
I got a Thundershirt for him to wear.
Using pressure to relieve anxiety has been a common practice for years, but without taking a class in a special kind of training that involves a pressure body wrap, we were sort of out there on our own. Along came the Thundershirt and now it’s as easy as putting a lightweight, stretchy “jacket” on your dog and pressing some velcro strips together to create a doggie version of pressure that works in a similar manner to swaddling an infant or people with autism using pressure to reduce persistent anxiety. We gave it a couple of test runs when there weren’t any chance of storms so I could be sure to create a good association with the Thundershirt. Basically, I put the Thundershirt on Schoons and then gave him his dinner (that I prepared with some extra delicious bits). Now, when a storm is forecast, I’ll put the Thundershirt on several hours in advance. (And I will sometimes put it on when there’s 0% chance of rain, too, just to be sure he doesn’t associate the Thundershirt with an impending storm.)
I also got an Adaptil collar for him.
Adaptil is a synthetic copy of the natural comforting pheromone released by a mother dog to reassure her puppies. Research has shown that Adaptil not only helps puppies but also dogs of all ages who are stressed and anxious about thunderstorms and fireworks, veterinary visits, car travel, new additions to the family, and more. Adaptil comes in a few forms: a room diffuser and a collar. They used to offer a spray (which we loved — use it as needed, just spray it in the car, crate, or wherever it might be needed), but couldn’t find that option on the U.S. version of the website at the writing of this article. We chose the collar option so Schooner would have the benefit of the pheromone all the time. If we used the room diffuser on the main floor where he spends 95% of his time, then he wouldn’t have it available to him when he runs to the downstairs bathroom when it storms.
“Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.” — William Congreve.
It’s true! We got Through a Dog’s Ear to help soothe Schoon’s nerves and we’re finding that helpful not only for storms, but also while we’re away from the house. The over-arching psychoacoustic theory behind Through a Dog’s Ear is summed up in just two words — simple sound. This is basically the process of minimizing intricate auditory information found in most music. In other words, it’s not good enough to just leave the radio on — even if you’re playing classical music. That kind of music is too complex to help dogs relax. Through A Dog’s Ear music has been specially composed and recorded to be used to calm dogs. If you want the scientific research, it’s all here.
It’s better to treat fear or anxiety earlier, rather than later when it’s had a chance to grow or be generalized to other situations.
When we are in a fearful state, learning can’t take place. If Schooner is downstairs trembling and panting, I can’t help him feel better about storms. Nothing I do will actually make it’s way into his brain and stay there. To that end, we’re trying some medication to help with events such as thunderstorms or fireworks. The idea is to at least stop the event (thunderstorm) from continuing to strengthen Schooner’s fear. Medication is a way to open that window of opportunity so we can get a foothold into easing the fear. Veterinarians are on the front lines and are qualified to advise dog owners on whether their dog is a candidate for medication and to determine which medication would be most appropriate. As a trainer, I stand ready to implement the training and conditioning necessary to help teach dogs that thunder and lightning isn’t all bad, but I can only make progress if the dog is in a less fearful or anxious state. We’ve used the medication three times (two for thunderstorms, once for the 4th of July festivities) and we’re happy with the results. Schooner hasn’t made a run for the basement or given more than a passing glance at the storms or fireworks when he’s been medicated. He’s not “out of it,” either, for which I’m thankful. If another dog barks and runs outside, he’s up on his feet and hot on their heels.