Is your dog afraid of thunder and lightning?
I have heard and seen people advising pet guardians to ignore their dogs when they are frightened. They are warned that paying attention to the dog will make them worse and lead to the dog being more fearful in future. This is nonsensical. As long as you yourself are calm and are not frantically engaging with the dog, but instead are calmly soothing and reassuring him, as well as putting strategies in place to help him relax, you are not going to increase the dog's fears.
Imagine being in a minor car accident - nothing serious, but something that has shaken you a little. Your friend puts an arm around you and reassuringly tells you that everything is going to be ok. She takes you inside and makes you a cup of tea. Is this going to make you more fearful of cars? No, absolutely not. It might, however, help lower your anxiety levels and make you feel better. You cannot reinforce an emotion!
We recently experienced heavy rain and thunder. Jambo does not like thunder. You can see this just by looking at his body language in the photo of him eating his breakfast. His ears are back, and his tail is low. He was, however, calm enough to eat and to then take a nap in his much loved ‘puppy’ bed, in his ‘secure place’ under the kitchen breakfast bar – This is where the bed was placed when he was a little puppy so that he could sleep beneath my feet as I work on my laptop.
I have worked hard to help Jambo overcome the fear he has of thunder, fireworks and other loud noises. Some of the strategies I use are ongoing and some only come into play when the fear-provoking stimulus is present.
Here are some of the strategies that help Jambo cope, which could also help your dog or the pets in your care:
- Close all exterior doors, windows, shutters, curtains and blinds.
- Put on the lights - helping to mask lightning that may sneak through any gaps in the curtains.
- Play calming classical music. Soft rock and reggae are also good options! In fact, the effects of habituation can be reduced by varying the genre of music chosen. (Bowman, Dowell and Evans (2017).
- Put the extractor fan on - providing ‘white noise’ to help block out the sound of the thunder.
- Spray a bandana with calming lavender oil and tie around the dog's neck.
- Spray the dog's mattress with Pet Remedy Pet Calming Spray or similar.
- Plug in a Pet Remedy diffuser. Adaptil is another good option.
- Make sure the dog's crate is available for further refuge, located in a favorite place away from exterior windows and doors.
- Place a yummy stuffed Kong, sealed with peanut butter (or the dog's favorite food) in the dog crate.
- If necessary, give a Calmex for Dogs tablet. This is a supplement designed to reduce stress and anxiety in dogs. Nutracalm or Zylkene are other options. *Please consult your veterinarian before administering any supplements or medication.
- Put a Thundershirt on the dog. Please note this should have been previously conditioned to engender a positive emotional response.
- Apply body wraps - To learn more about body wraps, please refer to the The Use of Body Wraps and Pressure Garments for Dogs, a three-part program covering the knowledge and skills required to effectively use sensory techniques such as body wraps.
My arms are always open for a reassuring cuddle; my hands rubbed with Bitch Balm (a lavender based balm for dogs and horses) to pet, and my calming voice to soothe.
All of the above management strategies are put into place once the storm has arrived and the fear is present, but I also implemented a behavioral change program to work on actually changing Jambo's emotional response (his fear). Before we began the behavior change program, Jambo would shake uncontrollably and run and hide at the first tremor of thunder. He would not have eaten his breakfast, nor would he have been able to rest in his puppy bed...
I use classical conditioning (counterconditioning) and desensitization, to help elicit a positive emotional response to things Jambo is frightened of. The sound of thunder, fireworks, gunshots... have all been paired with his favorite peanut butter and/or roast chicken.
If you do not know what respondent conditioning is, please refer to The DogNostics Lexicon - A Lexicon of practical terms for pet trainers and behaviour consultants available from DogNostics Career Center. Click here to purchase.
Putting all of the above measures in place, and giving Jambo my love and attention, helps ease his anxiety.
*Please note: The information in this article, is not designed to replace a consultation with a veterinary behaviorist or accredited force-free behavior consultant. If a dog is showing signs of fear, anxiety or stress, an appointment should be made with a certified behaviorist who will put an individualized behavioral change program in place. The dog's veterinarian should also be consulted, who in conjunction with the behaviorist, may deem that anti-anxiety medication is necessary.
Reitzes, D. C., & Mutran, E. J. (2004). Bowman, A., Scottish SPCA, Dowell, F.J., & Evans N.P. The effect of different genres of music on the stress levels of kennelled dogs. Physiology & Behavior Volume 171, 15 March 2017, Pages 207-215.