With thunder storms and the knowledge that the fireworks will become more frequent over the coming few months of festivities, it got me talking to my friends about fears and phobias in dogs. What is the best way to deal with situations where a dog is really scared of something like thunder or fireworks? What do you do when you can’t just avoid the situation, such as a thunder storm?
Most dogs and cats and other pets are thunder phobic and as with most fears that our pets develop, it can get progressively worse over the years with each traumatic event. Managing thunder phobia’s can be pretty challenging, mostly because you have no control over the intensity of the storm and how bad it gets. Not only that, but you may notice changes in their behaviour with the shift in air pressure leading up to a storm and that is pretty hard to simulate in order to work on it as a training issue.
There are lots of myths out there when it comes to dealing with a thunder or firework phobia. One is that you should ignore your dog and act like nothing is happening. The thinking behind that being that if you pat or comfort your dog when he’s scared you will reinforce the fear. We all know that when you’re scared of something having someone comfort you is more likely to make you feel better, so take the same approach with your pets. If they are frightened of something, then absolutely give them comfort and support until the scary thing is no longer present.
In saying that the type of comfort that to provide should always be calming in the way it is given. If you are anxious or feeling very nervous at the same time then it is likely that it could make your dogs worse. Dogs are very perceptive and can sense when you are feeling nervous or stressed. So, during a storm, try turning on the TV and sit in the lounge with your pet, so they can be as close as they feel they want to be to you and give out reassuring pats as required. Often it is simply your presence that they really want and if you’ve been at work, although frantic when you first come home, they will quickly settle once you are there with them.
When you are dealing with phobias in dogs it is also good to look at what else may be available to help your dog to feel calmer. A very popular product is the Thunder Shirt. As outlined on the Thunder Shirt website, the product uses gentle hugging to calm animals. This gentle constant pressure can have a calming effect if they are feeling anxious, fearful or over-excited. Experts believe that pressure has a calming effect on the nervous system, possibly by releasing a calming hormone like endorphins. Using pressure to relieve anxiety in people and animals has been a common practice for years. This philosophy is based on techniques such as the swaddling of infants to calm and sooth them and the use of pressure for people who have autism to relieve persistent anxiety.
Another more recent product is the pheromone collars and sprays called Adaptil. This is a synthetic copy of the natural comforting pheromone released by a mother dog to reassure her puppies. These can be very successful when dogs have been in kennels, taken to new environments and staying home alone. These will also be effective during a thunder storm or firework scenario.
If your dog is particularly bad then it is worth seriously thinking about medication. It is generally something that is considered to be a last resort but I think sometimes the last resort consideration is taken too seriously. The medication can hav a huge impact for the better and makes a significant difference to your pets mental state. Your dog can go from pacing, drooling, shaking and general frantic behaviour to being calm and relaxed. They will still aware the storm is going on but will settle and happily lie on a dog bed. It can save both you and your pet a lot of stress.
Obviously giving your dog medication is not something to be taken lightly but if you have a dog that is very stressed by thunder storms we recommend a trip to your vet to discuss your options.
Written by Karen Phillips