The handsome guy in the star-spangled thunder coat is Brutus. It wasn’t long after we adopted him we found out he had anxiety during storms and fireworks. He would bark, shiver, pant, and once he even tore up his nose and teeth in a panic trying to dig thru a bathtub drain. On the other side of the extreme is the sweet girl laying next him, Bella. She could have slept thru the War of 1812. So what makes one dog scared of storms and loud noises over another? There isn’t really a definite answer for that. Some speculate that dogs are sensitive to the barometric pressure, the low-frequency rumbles, or have been conditioned to be scared of loud noises. Whatever the reason, it is hard as a pet owner to see your furry friend in a panic over something you can’t control.
There is no easy “fix” but HOPE IS NOT LOST!! Here are 7 things you can do to help reduce your pet's anxiety. Some have worked for my dog while others haven’t. Keep in mind that every dog is different and what works for one dog may not work for another. It’s about finding what helps YOUR dog.
1. Lots of exercise before a storm
This isn’t always possible. Sometimes storms pop up out of nowhere but if you know one is coming try to exercise your dog as much as possible beforehand. A tired dog is a happy dog! Also giving your dog regular walks can help reduce overall stress and pent up energy that can come out as anxious behavior later.
2. Give your dog a safe space
This could be an open crate, closet, laundry room, bathroom or any other space away from windows. Don’t force your dog into a space and don’t trap them in a room unless they feel more comfortable with the door closed. Let them show you where they feel safe. Pets usually have their go to spot where you can find them when they are scared. Make sure your pet has access to that space and try making it comfortable. Put down a dog bed or some blankets and keep the lights low. If you’re using a crate cover it with a blanket or two and leave the door open. This will help make it feel like a den and can also absorb some of the outside noise.
Once your pet has found his designated “safe space” you can also teach them to seek it out on command. It helps give the dog a sense of direction. The key to this behavior modification is to practice before a storm arrives. It’s like doing a fire drill, knowing what to do ahead of time helps reduce panic. Lead your dog to his safe place and reward calm behavior while there. Stop rewards and affection when they start to get anxious or you could end up just encouraging the anxiety.
Turn on a radio or TV to help drown out the storm. Distract your pet with games and treats. Make sure you do this at the first sign of a storm and before your pet gets worked up. Get out their favorite toy for some fun playtime. Try puzzles and treats to help occupy their mind. Having a stuffed kong on hand in the freezer can be a life saver! It gives your pet a longer lasting activity to distract them. Again, stop rewards and play if they start to get anxious or you could end up encouraging the behavior.
Here are some links to recipes for kongs
4. Behavior Modification
Do not encourage panicked behavior by scooping up your pet. I know, easier said than done when all you want to do is snuggle the fear away. By giving your pet affection when they start to panic you could also be reinforcing the behavior. This could also prevent your pup from being able to deal with a storm or loud noise while you are away. Instead try to remain as calm and collected as possible and only reward calm behavior. Wait till your pet has settled down to show affection.
5. Snug wraps or thunder jackets
The idea behind these is that the compression has a calming effect on your dog. I will say that I personally use one for Brutus. It is not a magic coat that gives him some sort of super natural doggie powers (able to leap tall buildings and withstand even the worst of storms) but for him it does seem to lessen his anxiety. Unlike at Christmas time when he dresses up in his ugly sweater, he is always happy to put on his thunder coat. Some of these jackets can get a little pricey but there are some inexpensive DIY’s you can try at home.
Here is just one of the many websites out there for DIY thunder shirts.
6. Essential oils or other natural supplements (collars, oils, chews)
There are a plethora of chews, oils, pheromone collars, and vitamins available to try. Almost all products will say they “work”, I mean who is going to buy a pill that says “won’t really work but I have a picture of a dog on my label so you should buy me anyway!” Make sure you do your research on the product you are thinking of buying. I believe Petsmart and Petco both have money back guarantees on their products with the exclusion of prescriptions and vitamins. Check with the store and manufacturer to see what their return policy is on the item you are purchasing so you won’t feel like you are wasting your money.
Some dogs respond better to these natural solutions than others. I still recommend you give them a try, you never know what might work for your dog. They can be a great aid in combination with the other strategies I’ve mentioned.
7. Benadryl or other medication under the supervision of a vet
Sometimes all the above still won’t help curb your pets anxiety to a manageable level. Always consult your vet before starting your dog on any medication. You want to make sure what you are giving to your pet is safe and the correct dosage. Pills aren’t a “fix all” and should be at the end of your list of things to try.
Your dog may never sleep thru the loud booms and cracks of thunder, but with some time and effort you can help reduce their anxiety to a manageable level.