Weathering the storm

Perhaps you know the drill: A flash of lightning, a clap of thunder, and your normally calm dog is off whining and wildly searching for a hiding place. Animal behaviorists call this reaction “storm anxiety” or “noise phobia.”

And while it’s pretty common in dogs, it’s hardly easy to watch — or cure. But don’t ignore it, advises Matt Peuser, a Kansas veterinarian, explaining “Most of the time, they don’t grow out of it on their own, and many will get worse with time if nothing is done.”

Yet many owners are stumped about how to address the behavior. One reason is that no one has pinned down exactly what triggers it. It’s highly probable that pets with noise phobia also suffer from separation anxiety, according to a Cornell University study of 1,644 dogs.

On the other hand, your pet can seem fine for years, and then suddenly one day just starts whining and pacing before you even realize it’s going to rain. Experts think your little guy might be responding to a combination of barometric pressure changes that you don’t feel and low-frequency rumbles that you can’t hear.

What you can do

Surprisingly, joint discomfort can be another silent pre-storm trigger for older arthritic dogs. If your dog suffers with joint discomfort consult your vet about supplements that may help your dog cope.

If you learn some calming techniques now, you can help your best friend, regardless of whether the reaction seems out of character. Remember that even if storm anxiety crops up suddenly, treatments tend to take time to work. Usually, the time is worth it and can help you avoid having to use anti-anxiety drugs — not every anxious dog needs medication to cope.

“We have our best luck with a management plan that includes changing some features in the environment, applying some behavior modification techniques and some medication,” says Barbara Sherman, Ph.D., D.V.M., and an associate professor of veterinary behavior at North Carolina State University College of Medicine. Likewise, you shouldn’t rely on just one solution. Instead, try a combination of the ones we’ve gathered here — and repeat them often.

  1. Always reward calm behavior. Don’t wait for your dog to act fearful to give her attention. When you console a whimpering dog you’re actually rewarding the unwanted behavior. So instead, praise her and shower her with affection when she’s completely calm. That way she knows that this is the correct way to behave.
  1. Use a Thundershirt when it’s not raining. Lots of owners make the mistake of putting their dogs in these snug-fitting calming jackets (other brands include Storm Defender and Anxiety Wrap) after a storm has begun. In fact, having Rover wear the shirt before a storm hits, when he’s already happy and relaxed, will help him associate the sensation of wearing it with feeling calm.
  1. Create a safe, storm-proof place for your pet. Pay attention to where your pet goes when a storm starts. If possible, help make this her permanent safe zone by adding a blanket, toy, or water dish. Crates can be safe spots, but a key feature should be that it’s as far away from storm sounds as possible.
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