Helping Your Dog With Storm Anxiety
If you’re reading this, chances are your pooch has a phobia for storms. Like any good pet parent, you are searching for ways to alleviate your poor dog’s stress. If only they could understand us when we tell them that everything will be okay!
Fortunately, while we may not be able to plainly communicate with our doggies, there are several ways that you can help them work through their fear of storms.
Understanding Your Dog’s Stress
Similar to humans, dogs have the capacity to experience a range of emotions. Unfortunately this also means that, like humans, they can develop psychological conditions. While fear is a natural self-preservation instinct, it can become irrational and harmful when a dog displays fearful behavior even though they are safe inside their human’s home. Even more worrisome is when their anxiety rears its ugly head again and again during a stormy season, and this type of chronic stress can negatively impact their health in the long run. But why is it that your beloved pup is so afraid?
There are many possible factors that can lead to a dog developing storm anxiety. What it usually boils down to is a negative experience kickstarting an ongoing fear. It could be a direct personal experience or even a learned fear from another dog or person that was afraid of storms. The fear can be especially deep-rooted if it was experienced at a young age.
Triggers and Symptoms
What makes storm anxiety so tricky is the fact that dogs are more sensitive to changes in weather than us humans. What might have started out as a fear of loud thunder can escalate to being afraid of dark cloudy skies and light rain showers because they’ve learned to associate those conditions to harsher storms. Storm anxiety triggers can include:
- Changes in barometric pressure
- The sound of thunder or sight of lightning
- Dark clouds
- Change of smell before and during a storm
- Low-frequency rumbling
- Static electricity (A dog’s fur can become statically charged as static electricity fields build up during a storm)
Learning to recognize your dog’s slight change in behavior at the onset of bad weather will help you to take early action to relieve their stress before it escalates when the storm hits. Symptoms of storm anxiety can include:
- Lowered ears
- Tucked tail
- Indoor potty accidents
- Destructive behavior or accidental self-harm
Relieving Their Storm Anxiety
You might not be able to completely cure your dog’s phobia for storms, but there are ways for you to alleviate their anxiety and reduce their symptoms to milder ones. It will be beneficial to implement a combination of some of the following methods to help relieve your furry family member.
1. Behavioral Training: These behavioral methods are long-term and require consistency and patience. The goal is to change your dog’s fearful view of storms to a happy one. It may help to have a trainer or behaviorist, but you can also try on your own.
- Desensitization is one type of behavioral method in which you gradually reduce a dog’s reaction to storms. To do this, in short daily sessions play a recording of a storm (try starting with the ‘least scary’ sound, such as rain, and work your way up to thunderstorms) at a low volume. Give your pup positive reinforcement by playing with them or using obedience cues and rewarding them with treats. Slowly increase the volume when they are calm and relaxed, and keep up with positive reinforcement until they can stay calm at a loud volume. You’ll want to desensitize your pooch in each area of your home, as a coping skill learned in one room may possibly be forgotten in another. A downside to desensitization are the aspects of storms we can’t control, such as lightning, barometric pressure, and static electricity. To work around this, once your dog is desensitized to the recordings, try positive reinforcement sessions during periods of mild bad weather and work your way up.
- Counterconditioning is another option that involves repeatedly pairing a negative trigger with a positive one until your dog makes a positive association. For example, each time you hear thunder give your pup a treat. Eventually your doggy will associate the sound of thunder with receiving a treat. Be warned though – as this method requires consistency, you may well find yourself staying up for late night storms. Counterconditioning works best when the dog is a puppy and still learning about the world. Storm anxiety can be avoided all together if they learn to associate a positive experience with bad weather.
2. Have a ‘Safe Space’: This is essentially a ‘happy place’ for your dog to retreat to and be better relaxed during a storm. Cater to your pup’s instinct to hide by creating a safe space for them. This spot should be in a room farthest from outside noises and away from windows to avoid the sight of lightning. Drown out any noise by turning on a fan, playing music or white noise, or turning on a tv. If they enjoy their crate or cage, place it in this room but do not close them inside. Shutting them inside can cause them to feel trapped and make them panic and hurt themselves. Place comfy bedding, water, and favorite toys in their safe space. Try to avoid using a carpeted room as this can exacerbate static shock symptoms in dogs. When first introducing the safe space, make sure to spend some time with your dog in this room and use positive reinforcement to help them understand it’s a happy place.
It’s best for you or a family member to be home with your dog during storms, otherwise their anxiety may not be calmed, even in their safe space. If no one can be home to comfort them, another alternative to a safe space is having your pup attend doggy daycare. Other doggy friends will serve as a distraction for your dog, and constant attention by the daycare attendant will help them feel comfortable and keep them safe, thus making daycare a ‘happy place’. It’s important that your dog has prior experience at the doggy daycare, that way they can develop friendships with other doggies and the attendants.
3. Natural Remedies: These remedies can provide some relief on their own, but may work best when combined with the previous methods.
- Pressure wraps are a popular remedy for pet parents. Products like the Anxiety Wrap and Thundershirt use a “swaddling” technique to soothe your dog by applying light pressure to the dog’s torso. To have a higher chance of success with a pressure wrap, have your dog wear them during fun activities so they can create a positive association.
- Grounding materials help by removing the static charge from a dog’s coat. The Storm Defender Cape is one product with anti-static properties. You can also remove static charge with a grounding mat.
- CBD is a natural chemical found in cannabis or hemp plants. Over the counter CBD products are derived from hemp only, and therefore contain no THC, the psychoactive chemical that produces a ‘high’. CBD has many benefits, like treating anxiety, pain, and loss of appetite. It is available for dogs in treats and as an oil. Click here to read more about CBD.
- Dog Pheromones are chemical substances that affect their emotional state and behavior in a positive way. Adaptil is one that mimics dog appeasing pheromones and has supportive anecdotal evidence, as well as a study published in the Journal of British Veterinary Medicine. Adaptil is available as diffusers and collars. Using pheromones during desensitization training may potentially lead to better improvement results.
4. Medication: This option should be used as a last resort if your dog displays severe anxiety that cannot be calmed with the previous options. Sedative drugs could make them sleep through the storm, but do not help their underlying anxiety problem. Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication can help reduce your dog’s panic, and possibly help them focus on behavioral training to relieve their storm anxiety. Keep in mind that medicine needs to be absorbed into the body before any triggers are present, usually at least an hour before the predicted storm. Also, as with all medications, you’ll want to keep a close eye on your pup and look out for any unwanted side effects. Talk with your vet about what options may be best.
Don’t Make It Worse
It can be understandably frustrating when trying to quell your pet’s storm anxiety, especially if an anxious episode leads to physical damage in your home. However frustrating it might be, punishment should never be used. It will only reinforce a dog’s negative association with storms and may cause symptoms to present themselves more severely. Catching the symptoms early and using the methods above will relieve stress from your pooch before it gets severe enough to cause destruction.
Another mistake is to fuss, or ‘make a big deal’, about the storm or your dog’s reaction to it. Dogs are social animals and often look to others for social cues, especially their parents. Any dramatic stimulation they perceive from you will in turn cause them to react more anxious or fearful. Do your best to not act scared or anxious for your dearest pet. Instead, act as if it were a normal day.