I am sure many of you are looking forward to celebrating the upcoming holiday, even though it may be different than in other years. But for all the opportunities that holidays provide, whatever the circumstances, for many dog owners the 4th of July is one to be feared. Of all the challenges we face as dog parents, the anxiety, fear, and sometimes outright panic and hysteria that can appear in our dogs as a result of loud noises and storms has got to be one of the most difficult. Our dogs truly suffer at times like this, and we suffer along with them. I will never forget my severely thunderphobic dog who literally climbed the walls trying to get away from whatever she was experiencing, standing on the back of the sofa, reaching high and clawing at the walls, anything to get away. It was obvious she suffered at times like that, and with each storm it just got worse. Fortunately she was an older dog when it got to the point of being unbearable for her, and cardiac and other problems led her across the rainbow bridge before she had to face another storm season. I mourned the loss of that dog, but admit I felt some relief for her that she would never experience another storm again. I assured her there were no thunderstorms over the bridge, just sunshine and rainbows.
That experience taught me a lot, mostly that I never, ever want to see a dog go through that, and my heart goes out to pet parents who struggle with this in their pups. I have vowed to always make storms and loud noises fun, playtime, with special treats to counter-condition against an upswell of anxiety. When we get dogs who have not yet learned that this stuff can be really scary, it is much easier to reinforce for them that storms are nothing to worry about. We have to do that with ourselves, too, because we know they interpret our reactions and will learn to be anxious if we are anxious. So making storms nothing to fear on the human side is just as important, even if the fear is because of our concern for our dogs and not for our own well-being during the storm.
I’ve gotten a few questions about this in the last couple of days and shared my favorite tips and first steps to help people deal with this dreaded situation. I came across a new blog post recently, written by animal behaviorist Dr. Karolina Westlund, that offers a comprehensive review of many options. Her post includes several things not generally found in the information readily available to help deal with noises. She also includes references to research where relevant. Rather than repeat all the good tips, I’ll provide a link at the end of this post. Her blog entry is fairly long, but that is because she explains the mechanisms in a thorough way and also provides a variety of options. There is no one-stop, works for everyone, approach to this. Trying some things, being consistent, and observing how your dog responds are key to figuring out what to do for your dog. Your dog also can change and what worked before may not be enough or they may have become accustomed to that and need something different. I know you will find some useful information here.
Note that noise situations are different and may evoke a different response. Low rumbles may be perceived differently by your dog than loud bangs or rhythmic noise. The unpredictability of some sounds make them worse for some dogs. It isn’t always just the noise that is a problem. Thunderstorm reactions have been hypothesized to be associated with a buildup of static electricity in the air, not just the noise. Dogs often will go to a bathroom where it is thought that the plumbing helps to dissipate that electricity. Since the advent of PVC pipe, that is less effective, but in older homes with copper or metal plumbing, it actually can provide some relief from the static for your dog. If you live in such a house, you may have noticed your dog likes to hang out in the bathroom. (It isn’t always that they just have to follow us there, but there’s that aspect, too.) It also is a relatively confined space and may be in an interior area away from outside walls and windows. If you have such a room, that may be a good “safe space” for you and your dog to enjoy the storm/noise together. Yes, I actually wrote “enjoy.” I haven’t had any luck teaching any of my dogs to play cribbage yet, but I’ve spent more hours than I can count sharing some food treat puzzle fun with them over the years to get through storms and other scary situations.
The foundation for management of any difficult situation is to keep the dog safe and make sure all humans remain calm. Building on that foundation, following are my main go-to actions in case you don’t want to read the entire linked blog post. But I recommend that you do because it is full of wonderful information and you can’t have too many options for dealing with this challenge.
1. Humans absolutely must be calm. Think of storms, noise, as absolutely no big deal, just part of a typical day. Your dog will pick up very easily if you are on edge or anxious or if things are different, and can easily associate that change with the noise. Sometimes I think this is the hardest part.
2. Above all else, keep the dog safe, monitor door openings and closings, have a talk with everyone else in the household so that the dog is safe. Maybe one person is designated as the primary caregiver to take the dog out to maintain consistency. Storms and fireworks are high risk times for a dog to get away and, in their fearful state, it will be very difficult to find them and get them safely home. Even in fenced yards, I have taken my dog out on leash to keep them close and to know I had control and they were secure, just in case. They seemed to feel more secure keeping me close by, also. I think one of them thought she had me on leash for her control.
3. Help your dog associate the noise with something pleasant – a favorite toy, special treats, videos on tv (my dog loves Animal Planet). Distraction can be helpful in addition to the positive association. It’s storming? Cool! Where’s my ball? Your dog may not get to that point, especially if you did not raise them from puppyhood, but it can help with the counter-conditioning even in older dogs if they are not so traumatized that they can’t get involved. Desensitization and counter-conditioning are the mainstay of dealing with phobias and other anxiety-producing situations. It’s never too late to start. Most dogs can be helped with appropriate behavioral interventions.
4. Rescue Remedy is a wonderful product for all sorts of stress/anxiety situations. Rescue Remedy is one of the flower essence formulas created by Dr. Edward Bach (favored pronounciation now is “batch”). It has been in use in people since the early 1900s and has received widespread accolades among holistically oriented practitioners and rescues (the latter often dealing with high stress in dogs). It can be found in most pet supply stores. There is a form labeled specifically for pets that is best to use for our dogs. Prior to that formula, the people version was used for pets, and that is available in many nutrition and vitamin shops. The difference between the two formulas is that the pet version is alcohol free, so it is a much better choice for your pet to get the form specific for them. I am extremely conservative about anything new I try, so I always recommend observing closely to see how your dog responds so you have that information to guide future interventions.
5. Create a space where you dog can feel safer and cannot harm themselves. A crate with a blanket over it, a table made into a fort/tent (remember those as a child?), their dog bed surrounded by soft stuffies, pillows, blankets, clothing from the owner so they get your smell, etc. The goal is not to confine the dog which can make things worse, but to give them a quiet and safe space where they can go in an effort to isolate themselves from what is bothering them. This is not a good time to put the dog in his or her crate, which can lead not only to increased noise anxiety but fear of the crate, too. The exception would be if the dog likes the crate and chooses that space. But leave the door open, and make sure it is the dog’s choice to go there. Bathrooms can be good if located interior of the home, not just for thunderstorms but because an interior bath may provide some sound-deadening effect and a smaller (thus, to a dog, more manageable) space. Help create the safe space, but let it be your dog’s choice where to go, and always make sure they can leave that space if they need to move.
6. Thunder shirts or anxiety wraps work well for some dogs. Explained in the blog linked.
7. Adopt a whole household approach so that everyone is consistent in their interactions. If one person is anxious and you’re trying really hard to interest the dog in some play, the dog is going to respond to the anxiety.
You will find many other tips in the blog linked below. I hope some of this information is helpful and I wish you all a safe and stress-free summer and holiday. Note that on the blog post you will find a link to download the post as an e-publication for future reference.