Thunderstorm Phobic Dog? How to Prepare a Plan to Reduce their Stress
Updated: Jun 22, 2022
It’s Hurricane Season here in Florida and so far, the storms haven't been too bad, but as July approaches it will be a different story as the storms will start rolling in daily. Because of this, it is essential to have a thunderstorm plan in place that will provide your dog with comfort and help teach them to be calm during a storm even when you are not home. Thunderstorm phobia is a learned behavior that can develop from just one “scary” thunderstorm event or negative association with a storm and can be displayed by one or more of the following behaviors: panting, shaking, drooling, pacing, self-injury, trying to hide or even escape. The trigger doesn’t have to be thunder as your dog may sense a change in barometric pressure, wind, static, clouds, or rain prior to a storm and start to display signs of anxiety or stress. Prolonged stress is detrimental to our dog’s overall well-being so it is essential to have a thunderstorm plan in place that will help reduce any storm related stress.
To help make the appropriate choices for your thunderstorm plan, Dr. Sally Foote, a Certified Animal Behavior Consultant and Veterinarian recommends to first determine the level of panic that your dog experiences.
Grade 0- Your pet is calm and will go to the safe area or crate
Grade 1-Your pet is calm, but does not know to go into a safe area or crate
Grade 2- Your pet is mildly nervous, scared as they go to a safe area or crate
Grade 3- Your pet is hiding, pacing, shaking, panting, trying to escape
Grade 4- Signs as above very severe. I'm worried he might have a heart attack. I can't sleep because of the way my pet is acting. My pet has injured him/herself.
Dr. Foote also recommends that Grade 2-4 wear an Adaptil collar 24/7 to help reduce the fear escalation from a pop up storm. She also recommends that Grade 3 and 4 seek behavioral medicine intervention in addition to the Adaptil collar to help support their intense level of panic. https://www.dvm360.com/view/storm-sangria-calming-cocktail-noise-phobic-dogs
In my personal experience I have seen Grade 1 and some 2 have success with natural supplements such as calming essential oils, whereas others that have scored Grade 2 do best with medicine. Please note not all essential oils can be used around your pets and some can be very toxic. For more information on safety and an Essential Oils for Calming Webinar please go to Dr. Janet Roark’s (The Essential Oil Vet) website https://essentialoilvet.com/product/essential-oils-for-calming/.
One of the most important aspects of a thunderstorm plan is to have everything prepared PRIOR to the storm. Below are the recommendations that I have found to be the most successful. These recommendations come from personal experience as I have had two Grade 4 Storm Phobic dogs. The first one was a rescue from a hurricane who had a tree fall on her house during her sensitive period as a puppy, to the dog I have now who developed the phobia when we got caught in a bad pop up storm when we were driving in the car and overtime the phobia intensified due to a knee injury. I have had great success using these recommendations with my clients just tweaking the plan to meet their individual needs.
1. Lightning/Weather Apps- It is important to know when a storm is headed your way to give you ample time so you can set up the Safe Place and give any medicine or supplements that are needed. I use three different apps since at times 1 or 2 may fail, the third one always sends an alert. My favorites are Lightning Tracker Pro, Weather bug, and the Spectrum Bay News 9 which is from our local news station.
2. Medicine- if your dog scored a Grade 3 or 4 on the panic scale it is highly recommended that you speak to your veterinarian about medicine to help calm your dog during the storm. If your vet has prescribed medicine and you are not experiencing desired effects than it is recommended to see a Veterinary Behaviorist in your area or if you don’t have a VB in your area than see if you have a Veterinarian who has taking continued education classes on behavior medicine. If you are in the Tampa Bay area and need help, schedule a consultation with Dr Edwards as he is the one who helped me by changing Frankie’s medicine and then I was able to make significant progress reducing his stress during a storm. It is important to get medicine into your dog at least an hour ahead of time. If you have no way to get home in time then you need to start to see if a neighbor, friend or family member can help out in your absence. If no one is available give the medicine prior to leaving pending that your vet says that is okay.
3. Safe Place –Help your dog find a Safe Place in the house that they can retreat to during a
storm and will feel safe in even if you are not able to be home with them. Some dogs prefer a closet or bathroom, some dogs like a crate. The important thing to consider is that it has to be a place that YOUR dog finds comfortable, not where you want them to go. ie. Some dogs will become very stressed if they are forced to go into their crate during a storm. Once you have established a safe place, use a fan for background noise and play music that has a beat to it to help blend in with the booms of thunder. I use a Hang Drum playlist off of Spotify.
4. Positive pairings- Once your dog is in their safe place, start to pair yummy food that they
never had before with the storm. For example, put some high value canned dog food on a Lickimat (freeze it if you want it to last longer) as licking is a self-soothing behavior and can help calm the dog down. You can also try putting high value treats in a snuffle mat as sniffing for food lowers the heart rate and sniffing for food produces optimism. When time permits work on changing the way your dog feels about the storm by pairing every boom with a chunk of chicken.
5. Rule out pain – If your dog has an injury, arthritis, or other pain, this can intensify their reaction to the storm. With every boom they usually tense up which often can increase their level of pain. Be sure to talk to your vet to come up with a pain management plan especially for storm season. Also try a gentle massage during the storm.
When the storm passes and your dog is ready to go outside, try to get them out for a decompression walk. A decompression walk is a walk that is off the beaten path away from the busyness in our neighborhoods. The point of the decompression walk it to let the dog sniff as much as they want to. It is important to do this type of walk on a long leash compared to a short leash as research has showed that a long leash increased sniffing time by 280%. The point of the walk is to let the dog have some freedom and choice, which can be very rewarding. Also you want to let them sniff as much as they want to as that is stress reducing. (https://www.dogmindedboston.com/blog/2019/5/27/the-life-changing-power-of-decompression-walks)
If you have tried all the steps above and your dog is still experiencing stress during a storm, it doesn't matter where you live, please reach out to schedule a virtual appointment with me. I have many different ways to tweak this plan to come up with a solution that works for you and your dog’s individual needs! Believe me, I know watching your dog stress during a storm can be just as stressful for the owner as it is for the dogs. I went from watching my dog shake and pant so hard that I thought he may have a heart attack to now he lays calmly on the bathroom floor engaging with a special treat as you can see in the video below which was recorded during a storm. I am here to tell you from experience that you don’t have to live like that! If you need help, I am here for you! Just send an email to email@example.com to schedule your virtual appointment and I will have a positive solution for you and your dog too!
Snuffle mats, rope, and poufs are a great way to provide sniffing opportunities and to help decompress a dog. I have personally tried many products and my favorite snuffle products are made by ComfortsbyDebra on Etsy. https://www.etsy.com/shop/ComfortsbyDebra?listing_id=646810891&ref=shop_overview_header
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