Storm phobia: What can we do?
August 22, 2013
Last week's article focused on the possible causes of thunderstorm phobia and the symptoms that our furry friends experience. This week we take a look what we can do to help our pals overcome it. Though some dog breeds seem to be more susceptible to storm phobia (for example, herders, hounds and sporting dogs), dogs adopted from shelters and rescue organizations are also prone to it.
A shelter/rescue-adopted dog's psychological status may be teetering on a thin "rail" for various reasons: frightening incidents before adoption, a former owner's abuse or abandonment or, when a puppy, poor socialization or little exposure to the sights and sounds of nature. These life experiences can induce anxiety and phobias of all kinds.
So, what can we do to alleviate our furry friend's terror? With the help of your veterinarian, you can develop a behavior modification program called systematic desensitization.
Basically, it involves exposing your buddy to a quick flashing light and a soft recording of thunder and then rewarding with lots of treats and attention when no signs of anxiety display. As time goes by, the intensity of this exposure increases, and rewarding calm behavior continues.
It is very important, however, to get professional guidance before attempting this.
If not done properly or if you fail to see signs of fear, you may make the phobia worse. As noted last week, cuddling and reassuring your pal during a storm is counterproductive. All this does is reinforce his scared-of-storms behavior. Just as important is to not punish him; if you were terrified, you wouldn't like it if someone you loved yelled at or, even worse, hit you.
Other options, however, are available; I cover only four here. The most low-tech option is a crate or a cleared space under your bed.
However, some dogs don't happily take to crates, especially those not introduced to crates when they were puppies, so your pooch may not seek it out. In any case, the crate must remain open so your pal can leave it at will.
A confined, panicky dog can not only destroy the crate but also seriously injure himself.
Then there are garments that reduce anxiety: the Thundershirt and the Anxiety Wrap, both of which reduce tension as a swaddling blanket does for a baby.
Though each is designed a bit differently, these popular garments provide a constant pressure to a dog's torso and appear to significantly produce a calming effect.
The Anxiety Wrap appears to be designed for dogs only; its reported success rate is 89 percent.
The Thundershirt, also available for cats, comes in a variety of sizes, colors and styles for dogs; its reported success rate is 80 percent.
The Storm Defender cape works differently. Dogs are incredibly sensitive to changes in, well, everything. Static electricity buildup in the air precedes the lightning that precedes the thunderstorm that causes anxiety and fear.
According to various online articles from respected journals, research has found that dogs quickly pick up the change in static charge, and it's natural for them to fret and seek shelter.
This metallic-lined garment shields a dog from static charge, thus reducing the need to fret and seek shelter. Though it may take some patient training for your pal to accept any sort of "clothing," especially an adult or a senior dog, he probably will love it in the long run. Its reported success rate is 95 percent.
Online reviews for the Storm Defender are mostly positive, and negative reviews appear to center on the dog's dislike of the cape itself. One delighted reviewer said that her older dog, who was once extremely storm-phobic, now seeks her out when he senses a static change, seemingly asking for his cape; after she puts his cape on him, he just wanders off and takes a nap. Everybody loves a happy ending.
This week's article was contributed by Betty Duncan, a member of the CAPS board of directors.