Although the summer months are fun and exciting for pets and their owners, they can also be a source of anxiety. Summer is the season for thunderstorms, parades, and plenty of celebrations complete with fireworks, leaving some fur kids on pins and needles. You can help make this summer more enjoyable for your pooch by understanding their discomfort and knowing what to do about it.
The first thing a dog owner needs to understand is that it is not abnormal for their pet to be afraid of thunderstorms. According to WPHS trainer and Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, Sheri Gintner, certain dog breeds that are exceptionally sensitive are more likely to react fearfully to thunder. These breeds, which tend to include those with a herding background, may anticipate storms and build anxiety as the storm looms closer and becomes more intense.
It is a popular belief that the best way for dogs and humans to overcome fears is to be exposed to them gradually. This is true in regards to fear of fire trucks, ambulances, or other man-made sounds. WPHS trainer Marsha Robbins explains that this is achieved by exposing the dog to the feared noise at a considerable distance and rewarding him each time he acts calmly, then moving gradually closer.
In the case of thunderstorms, however, Gintner explains that desensitization soundtracks simply won’t do the trick. “There’s actually a change in barometric pressure and ozone. It’s not just noise that scares them”, Gintner reminds dog owners, adding that there is no way to simulate either of these sensations.
Power outages resulting from storms also create noises often unnoticed by humans that can spook dogs. When power is lost abruptly, electronics such as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors go off. The noise of other electronics shutting down and starting back up in unison can also frighten a dog, exacerbating previous negative experiences related to storms. Gintner suggests that pet parents prevent this by upgrading their electronics to models with battery backup, avoiding loss of power and the coinciding sounds.
Even when dog owners follow all of these suggestions, they cannot control the volume or frequency of startling noises. In such cases, Gintner believes that the best way to help your dog in dealing with loud sounds is to “figure out where the deepest, darkest corner of the house is and be there with your dog.” Gintner and Robbins suggest playing classical music, which has a calming effect on dogs. One soundtrack, “Through a Dog’s Ears”, is tailored for soothing dogs and is without percussion, which is actually known to stimulate dogs. Robbins stated, “When I put that soundtrack on, my pack of dogs won’t even react to the mailman coming to the door.”
Another great way to keep your dog from fixating on frightening sounds is to prepare a Kong toy stuffed with their favorite treats in advance and give it to them just before the start of a noisy event.
If none of these solutions keep your dog from focusing on the weather, give him sufficient means to comfort himself however he normally does. “You can’t tell him to stop being afraid” says Gintner, adding that you certainly can’t rationalize to him why the storm isn’t a threat. The next best thing to do, however, is to keep a confident, upbeat tone with him and stay nearby. You should also praise him any time he demonstrates a lower stress level during the period of loudness. Be cautious not to “baby” your dog while they’re reacting to loud noises. Robbins explains that because dogs are sensitive to our emotions, “Any time you reassure the dog when they’re scared, you’re telling them that, yes, they should be scared.”
Although most pet owners avoid medicating their dogs, there are circumstances under which a dog would benefit from an anti-anxiety prescription. If a dog is moderately anxious, it is best to try some of the other coping techniques discussed by Gintner and Robbins. Overly anxious dogs, however, can become so obsessed with anticipating storms that they eventually fear anything that they can connect with startling noises, including nightfall. Dogs that have a hard time emotionally recovering after loud events are in danger of falling into this category. Robbins advises that a dog too terrified to listen to commands or accept treats is at a severely elevated anxiety level and will require extra work.
Non-prescription solutions are also available to relax your pet. Composure Liquid by Vetri-Science is a nutritional supplement that can be added to a dog’s water to calm them down without causing drowsiness. Another calming product recommended by Gintner is Rescue Remedy, which is made from Impatiens, Clematis, Rock Rose, Cherry Plum and Star of Bethlehem.
Yet another natural solution suggested by WPHS trainers is Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP). Dog Appeasing Pheromone is a synthetic chemical developed from the naturally produced pheromone released by female dogs to calm their newborn puppies. The pheromones are spread via a diffuser which plugs into any regular electrical outlet and inhaled by the dog, resulting in the same reassuring sensation. DAP can be purchased in most pet stores and on the internet.
A product called Thundershirt can help your dog cope with noise-related stress as well. Thundershirt exerts gentle, even pressure on a dog’s body, creating a comforting sensation. This drug-free solution soothes dogs and is highly recommended by behavior experts and veterinarians. Thundershirt is safe for extended wear, making it especially useful when there is a chance that your dog will be home alone.
Regardless of whether your dog appears to be comfortable with loud noises, it is crucial that they are contained during fireworks or thunderstorms. Many animals are left alone, sometimes with windows left open, while their owners enjoy picnics, parades, and other celebrations. In the meantime, dogs in distress may become frantic and run away in search of safety. Joy Kealey of the lost and found department at WPHS reported that there is an enormous increase in calls regarding lost dogs coinciding with Independence Day festivities.
Keep in mind that each dog is an individual and may not respond to each technique in the same way as others do. These methods, however, have given people and their dogs a chance to make the best of their summers together. While it may be burdensome and time-consuming to test each approach, the results are well worth the struggle. If your training is successful, there will be no more indoor accidents, scratched furniture, or whining — and of course, one happy dog!
by Jamie Rempel