I’m writing this having gotten exactly fifteen minutes of sleep last night, so forgive me if the tieping is strangely. If you’re in the Milwaukee area, you know that a wicked batch of thunderstorms rolled through last night, and if you have a dog (even the most laid-back, laissez-faire kind) chances are it affected him/her. That was certainly the case at our house. Our five-year-old Pit/Lab mix, Bailey went through more stress than the original Mercury astronauts.
In an attempt to help her and any of your dogs who might be storm-phobic, I did some research.
It’s still just theory as to why dogs react the way they do to thunderstorms and perhaps not the same way to noise from, say, planes, trains or automobiles. One theory is that, like many humans, they genuinely enjoy John Hughes. Behaviorists (behaviourists to our European friends) aren’t sure whether they (the dogs, not the behaviorists) are reacting to the flashes of lightning, the sound of thunder, wind, rain, etc., but some dogs begin reacting up to 30 minutes before the storm arrives, leading some to believe that they are even reacting to changes in barometric pressure or the ionization of the air.
Certain dogs are predisposed to be thunderstorm-phobic more than others. Collies, Shepherds, Hounds and other working and sporting breeds tend to react more so than others. This is likely because their genetic make-up dictates that they react quickly and surely to stimuli, and the stimuli of a thunderstorm can be overwhelming.
Rescue dogs (like ours) also have a similar predisposition. Shelter dogs are more likely to have had scary or unpleasant experiences prior to being adopted making them highly sensitive.
But what to do about it? According to my research:
- Don’t panic. It’s very important that the human stay calm. And even though the situation may be extremely frustrating, it’s also important that the human not lose his/her temper and scold the dog. In the un-nuanced mind of a dog, this will only reinforce that there’s something to be afraid of.
- Don’t try to soothe the dog with baby talk or lavish affection. Again, this will only reinforce the behavior. Essentially, you’re saying: “Good boy; be terrified!”
- Provide a safe, isolated space where they can “den.” The bathroom, a closet, under the bed. Let them know that it’s there and let them ride it out on their own.
- Put the dog on a leash and walk him/her through the house. Have them perform behaviors that you’ve taught them and reward them accordingly. Redirecting the dog’s focus (and yours) can work wonders; plus it provides normalcy amidst chaos.
- When it’s not storming, there’s something called “systematic desensitization.” This involves gentle reminders of the storm (like a C.D.) and rewarding the dog with treats and affection when there is no sign of anxiety.
- Drugs. As a last resort. Consult your veterinarian.
I hope some of these tips help. Again, I did this research mainly for our family, but maybe it can help yours, too. And judging by the Doppler radar, we might get to try them very soon.