Fear of storms is a debilitating issue for many dogs and just as distressing for their owners. Evidence shows that there may be a genetic predisposition and many suffers have other anxiety problems eg separation anxiety. Signs of panic may include hiding, escaping, panting, shaking, barking, whining, drooling, pacing, destruction and self harm in an attempt to escape, urinating, defecating and extreme excitement or immobility. Some dogs may show signs of anxiety to any hint that a storm is coming such as wind, dark skies, first signs of lightning, dropping barometric pressure and light rain.
This is not a normal response and tends to get worse with time rather than better. Early intervention before the problem becomes extreme is very valuable. At no time should punishment or attempts to distract them be used as it will just make the situation worse.
What options are available?
- Specialist behavioural assessment is the best option. A behaviourist can identify and treat any other existing anxiety problems and tailor a behavioural modification and medication program specific to the individual dog with the aim of altering their emotional response to storms.
- Anti-anxiety medication is designed to break the cycle of fear and panic. Ask your vet for a separate handout on this complex topic. In the past sedatives such as ACP or acepromazine may have been prescribed. Research has shown that this medication only provides chemical restraint, does nothing to alleviate panic and may add to their confusion. Better medication is available and for this reason ACP is no longer recommended for storm phobias.
- Provide a safe place inside the house with the blinds drawn with TV or radio turned on in an attempt to compete with the noise of the storm. The darker the better. Consider a large cage or crate covered with a sheet or blanket as a regular safe place even for non-storm days. Some may panic more if confined so only use what works.
- Avoid reinforcing the behaviour by rewarding with pats as this will encourage rather than discourage the panic.
- Learn what behaviour of yours calms them down.This may be leaving them alone or ignoring the behaviour but staying relaxed within sight. Try gentle continuous pressure with your arm or body whilst sitting in a relaxed position. Your dog may look for your calm guidance so use what works. This should be practiced on non-storm days too.
- Cutting down on the stimuluswith aids such as human eye shades, specially designed dark glasses earmuffs (www.muttmuffs.com) or noise cancelling headphones. These aids should be tried out when the dog is calm for them to get used to them first.
Although this can be a difficult problem to treat and life long therapy may be required a combination of medication and other therapies will bring some relief.