By Dr. Patty Khuly
Last week’s patient was a pro. Actually, Arkana’s a retired pro — a forever-homed military working dog who’s been back from Afghanistan a couple of years now. Yes, after working for years in the field as a bomb dog, this 13-year-old Belgian Malinois is now living in the lap of luxury as yet another pampered Florida retiree.
With that kind of intro, you’d think it unlikely I’d be using Arkana as an example of any kind of phobia — much less a noise-based anxiety like thunderstorm phobia — but like so many other dogs, this war hero turns into a quivering mess of nerves at the first sign of a storm.
In Arkana’s case it’s more about the storm and less to do with the noise itself (Fourth of July fireworks don’t faze him, for example). The drop in barometric pressure, intensifying winds, and prevalence of static electricity probably play an outsized role. But for most storm phobia sufferers, the sounds of the storm are a big deal too. In fact, for some dogs, this extreme response to a normal feature of everyday summer life is all about the noise itself.
Address the Fear Early
Regardless of the exact trigger, treatment of dogs with thunderstorm phobia focuses on changing each canine patient’s individual response to the presence of storms. Though drugs can be had (and are sometimes appropriate), the ideal approach is to intervene early on — before this typically progressive condition becomes severe enough to warrant a pharmacological component to the solution.
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The goal is to teach storm-phobic dogs to relax during thunderstorms. But that’s easier said than done. Especially since the key is to get them to chill –– without inadvertently rewarding them for exhibiting anxious behaviors.
So what’s an owner to do?
For starters, every owner needs to know how to identify a thunderstorm phobic dog: pacing, panting, hiding, seeking human company, and shaking quietly are common early signs worthy of early intervention. Indeed, the condition need never be allowed to progress to chewed blinds and broken teeth to warrant serious attention.
Consult Your Veterinarian
Discussing the problem with your veterinarian is the obvious next step. Depending on the severity of the condition, a veterinary behaviorist may even be recommended.
Whatever your veterinarian’s exact recommendations, getting dogs to calm down using behavior modification will always be a primary part of the picture. With that bit of the solution in mind — and with Arkana as inspiration — I’ve put together this short list of commonly recommended items designed to help ratchet down the stress so many of our dogs suffer during this time of the year.
This is the lowest-tech way I know of to keep a dog comfy during a thunderstorm. But not all dogs will naturally seek out this kind of shelter when a storm strikes.1. Crate. This is the lowest-tech way I know of to keep a dog comfy during a thunderstorm. But not all dogs will naturally seek out this kind of shelter when a storm strikes.
These products work by “hugging,” a method that’s been found to reduce anxiety levels the same way swaddling helps infants. It doesn’t work for all, and for most it does help it won’t eliminate anxieties completely, but it’s always worth a try.
Everyone seems to have heard of the Thundershirt, but few appear to know what the Storm Defender Cape does. Unlike the Anxiety Wrap or Thundershirt, the Storm Defender Cape works to protect dogs from the static electricity associated with electrical storms. It works like a belted blanket, covering the dogs with a metallic lining designed to deflect the static electricity.
4. DIY static electricity deflector.
Want to test the theory? Use one of those metallic-lined thermal blankets you might already own as part of your camping gear. Or if your dog likes to hide under the bed or head off to his crate when it storms, consider covering the top of his crate or the boxspring with a layer of aluminum foil.
I’ve even made my own “storm defender” blanket to use on last year’s storm-phobic foster dog, Rosebud. I simply folded a twin-sized lightweight blanket in half over a layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil after securing the foil to the blanket with double-sided tape. I then stitched up the sides and randomly quilted down the middle for good measure. It took me all of a half hour. (But I cheated and used a sewing machine.) During storms we simply covered her with her “thunder-blankie.”
I’ve heard of some dogs getting used to the tinted version of these goggles for a room-darkening, stress-reducing effect. It’s somewhat akin to putting a set of blinkers on a horse so she won’t spook at things.
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For stressed-out dogs, these CDs apply a music therapy approach to help reduce anxiety. Simple Mozart piano pieces populate these recordings with the goal of refocusing an angst-ridden dog’s attention on something soothing.
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I’m sure there are other items designed with the goal of canine relaxation in mind. Do YOU have any more ideas for Arkana?