Monday, June 20, 2016

When The Sky Goes Boom

Eddie sat beside Mr. Parker and looked at me expectantly. Expectantly because I had already give him three of his favorite liver treats. 'If three, why not four, or even fourteen?' he seemed to be thinking. Regardless, he did not look especially nervous or anxious today.  However, two days prior this 30 kilo lab border collie cross put a dog shaped hole in the Parkers' kitchen screen door. Then he ran flat out for at least four kilometers, through the hammering rain and deepening mud. The Parkers found him several hours later, limping down a grid road, panting, bedraggled, exhausted. They brought him in to get him checked over because he still had a bit of a limp and because they didn't want this to happen again. Eddie had a storm phobia and it was the start of the summer storm season.

Many dogs have storm phobias and noise phobias. These are actually two different things, although there is considerable overlap. About 90% of storm phobia dogs also have a noise phobia to sudden loud sounds such as fireworks and cars backfiring. Curiously, the reverse is only true 75% of the time (noise phobia dogs who also have a storm phobia). Many also have other anxieties such as separation anxiety, but certainly a large number, like Eddie, do not. There is evidence that storm phobic dogs may also be reacting to the change in atmospheric pressure and to the flashing light in addition to the noise of the thunder. It is well known that dogs can hear the thunder approaching long before we do. This is a key part of the problem as many anxieties are worse when there is a wind up anticipatory phase.

I talked to Mr. Parker about three types of solutions: training, tricks and drugs. Most of the time you have to use at least two out of the three. Eddie needed all three.

Training is the best long term solution if you can get it to work. The chances of success are higher if you can consistently put the time needed into it. That said, I don't judge people who are unable to. My own dog still chases cars, steals entire cakes and barks at the vacuum like its the anti-Christ. There are a few training approaches, but the one I like best is counter-conditioning. For this find a long thunder storm sound clip. Start to play it very quietly and briefly while feeding your dog treats or his meal. Keep it below the level that sparks anxiety. Over time gradually increase the volume and duration, but always backing off immediately if he shows any signs of being worried. You are trying to create a deep association between a temporary bad thing, storms, and a permanent good thing, food. For most dogs the goodness of food will overpower the badness of storms, just so long as you take an extremely careful and gradual approach. This is best done well before storm season.

The tricks are fun. Get out you credit card and start surfing:
There are Mutt Muffs to block sound:
There are ThunderHuts, also to block sound:
There are Doggles in case the lightning flashes are part of the problem:
And there are ThunderShirts, to calm by creating a secure feeling "hug":

Of these I have only seen the latter in action. My observation has been that the ThunderShirt seems to help many dogs, but that's it's unusual for it to be the sole answer. Looks cool though. Especially when matched with doggles and mutt muffs. A cheap DYI solution is to let the dog tell you what reduces the noise and flashes for him. This means leaving all your (inside!) doors open and letting him find a bed to crawl under or closet to stuff himself into.

And then finally the drugs. Some clients glaze over for all the above and radiate a strong "just give me the drugs" vibe. There are several but none are perfect and all require you to be very watchful of the weather forecast as they won't work once the anxiety is already building up. It is good to have some medication on hand for when you know that a storm is predicted later in the day. Most drugs are given an hour or so before the expected onset of anxiety. In severe cases it may even be worth having anti-anxiety meds prescribed to be given on a daily basis right through the storm season. Regardless, talk to your veterinarian as there is definitely no "one size fits all answer".

Ultimately some counter-conditioning, a ThunderShirt and an alprazolam prescription were the ticket for Eddie. He had a great summer until they went camping in an aluminum trailer and were caught in a hail storm...


  1. Great post. So many examples of this deep-seeded fear pop up in the creative world: Kate DiCamillo's kid lit classic, Because of Winn-Dixie, and Sarah Harmer's song, "Dogs & Thunder", come to mind. Not so many ThunderShirts, though. :)

    1. Thank you! I sometimes wonder whether some anxious people I know might benefit from a ThunderShirt (mind you... they did used to use straightjackets for extreme cases... ;-) )

    2. you joke, but I wondered more than once if I should buy one in a size big enough to fit ME and not just my dog! Then I also remembered that straightjackets were indeed, kinda, sorta like the "human Thundershirt" LOL