It's Thursday night and a huge thunderstorm is headed for the region surrounding Greenwich. If your dog is scared of storms and you do not have a plan in place (pre-training or a prescription from your vet) the best you can do is:
- Take your dog to a finished basement with as few windows as possible to insulate him or her from seeing / hearing the storm.
- If you do not have a basement, close and cover windows. Turn on the A/C.
- Some dogs seem to be afraid of the smell of storms. Try lighting some candles or otherwise changing the scent of your home. Boiling some chicken might do the trick!
- Play fun dog games, offer a Kong or other stuffed chew toy filled with super delicious food to keep your dog busy and distracted. Offer this BEFORE the storm starts if possible to prevent your dog from noticing when it starts.
- Put music or the TV on.
- Try to behave as normally as possible. True confession: I watch a lot of TV (documentary addict.) My dog appears to find it soothing when we're in the living room with the windows closed, A/C on and the TV on with us watching it. Don't ask me to explain why. If your dog has a routine that s/he likes, give it a try!
When you are not in the path of an approaching storm and your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, your first stop is the vet's office. Your vet can decide whether it is appropriate and safe to write a prescription to help your dog right away, since desensitization exercises (training) cannot be done until storm season is over. The decision that medication is appropriate and writing a prescription for it is the job of a licensed veteriniarian, not dog trainers or other pet professionals.
Do NOT give your dog over the counter medications or other "remedies" without checking with your vet first! Each dog is an individual, just like people, and not every "natural" remedy is safe or effective for every dog.
When storm season is over, consider engaging the services of a well qualified dog trainer to perform desensitization and counter conditioning exercises to help your dog change his/her mind about flashing lights and thunder sounds. Instead of being perceived as scary, these stimuli can come to predict great things (turkey! hot dogs! games! attention!) for your dog.
The reason you have to wait until storm season ends is that your dog must not be exposed to scary storm things (flashing lights, thunder sounds, sound of rain) except during the training sessions. That is just not possible during storm season. If you figure out a way to do this, email me! :)
When dogs have a severe fear of storms, training alone may not work and your vet and/or a veterinary behaviorist may discuss a plan with you which includes anti-anxiety medication for use during storms as well as managing your home environment as best you can to block your dog's perception of the storm. The decision to include medication is one that you and your vet decide together, just as you would consult with your own doctor.
What you do NOT want to do is ignore your dog's fears. Whatever other people may think, it is not funny or cute when a dog hides under the bed or seeks attention during a storm. Being afraid of something you cannot control or understand is not a laughing matter. Neither is the cumulative effect of stress on a dog's health. So be a responsible pet parent and, despite any social pressure you may feel, get help for your dog if storms are a problem. You'll be glad that you did.
Questions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.theculturedcanine.com.