It’s been a very stormy year across the country, and in the Midwest in particular. Since I have three dogs with three variants of sound/storm phobia or sensitivity, my former love and thrill for dramatic weather has degraded to a dejected, “Oh, more storms?!”
But storm fear or sound phobia doesn’t have to be the end of the world for your pets or the end of sanity for you. There are many options now to help fearful or sensitive dogs (and cats!), and no reason to tolerate unnecessary suffering in animals or humans. In the next few posts, I will share what is working well for us and for others, and you can be the hero in your own household!
First, let’s lay out the subjects of our case study:
Shakespeare is a senior Doberman (11 at the time of this writing) who has been worried about thunderstorms most of his life. He stresses “down,” which means he tends to become quiet and still, and may seek a hiding place while he waits for it all to go away. Many people miss this type of storm fear, because it’s less obvious and less annoying to live with — but there’s no reason to let a dog be unnecessarily stressed or afraid.
Laevatein is a Doberman (6 at this time) who was utterly blase about storms, gunfire, fireworks, etc. in her early life, but developed a strong sound phobia between 2 and 3 years of age. This may have been genetic (many dogs develop sound phobias only in late adolescence or early adulthood), but I suspect it was largely environmental (our target-enthusiast neighbors began shooting regularly, for hours at a time, which flooded my dogs and created dramatic gunfire sensitivities). At its worst, Laev’s fear produced panic attacks which caused shaking, drooling, vocalizing, and escape attempts which injured both property and dog. She is otherwise practically fearless.
Inky is a Rottweiler (10? years old) for whom I’ve coined a new term — storm reactive. She doesn’t appear to be frightened or distressed by the storm, at least not in any typical manner, but she reacts aggressively, barking and growling at the thunder as if to warn it away. This has worsened in the year since Inky has lost her sight. This has never redirected to any person or animal, but I feel there must be some level of discomfort to produce this unusual reaction.
Thunder, Gunfire, Fireworks
The three big triggers in my household, the ones I know I need to prepare for or respond to, are thunder, gunfire, and fireworks. While all of these are big sounds, they are not sounds alone — thunder is accompanied by lightning, electrostatic changes, barometer changes, etc. Fireworks come with visual displays which awe and delight humans but which can be terrifyingly abnormal for some dogs. Even innocuous accompanying stimuli (such as rain) can take on sinister meaning to a dog who has paired it with with a phobia-inducing trigger. It’s important to note that each trigger much be treated; playing music to drown out thunder won’t help a dog who is still sensing a barometric change.
We’ve had about 24 hours of thunderstorm in the last 36*, and only a few of those were bad dog hours. That’s a pretty good ratio, given the scale of this storm front and especially compared to where we started! And even those hours were manageable — no drooling or panicking!
There are many good approaches to dealing with these fears and reactions — counter-conditioning, desensitization, drugs, alternative therapies, etc. — and we’ll cover many of them in one form or another. We’ll also talk about what isn’t recommended and why. See you in the next post!
Edit: I just read that we got 6″ of rain this morning alone, not counting previous days. No wonder the dogs are demanding water wings!