Canine Behavior/Storm Anxiety
My 2.5 year old standard poodle (female) is really scared of storms. She was better when she was a puppy, but it seems like this year especially, she has gotten really bad. She shakes and pants and is glued to my side.
When I am home and can put her Thundershirt on her, she isn't so bad. Still scared, but not shaking or panting. However, I'm worried about her mental state if it storms when I am away. Obviously that is going to happen once in a while. Is there anything I can do to help her not be so scared while I am gone? She has "hidey hole"- she goes under my coffee table. I have a noise machine with a thunderstorm setting- could I maybe try to desensitize her during the off season?
Thank you for your question. It sounds like your pup got finally got the memo... It seems many puppies are comfortable with thunder storms in their first year, and then somewhere along their growing up, they get a secret memo that dogs are supposed to terrified of the Thunder Monster and around their 2nd year, suddenly they act like something is trying to kill them.
One of my dogs is very sound sensitive. In his first year, I used to joke that he was afraid of EVERYTHING except thunder. He would go outside and sit on the porch and look up and watch the lightning and listen and not even flinch. Fast forward one year, and the sound of thunder makes him a trembling, panting, pacing, trying to hide, inconsolable panicked mess. I feel your concern as I have it in my house as well.
The Thunder Shirt helps a bit (some dogs it helps a ton, others not at all - but many are helped at least some). There's even some published scientific studies to support the use of ThunderShirt during storms.
When you're home, you can try to have a party with your dog during a storm. Have soothing classical music playing - Through A Dog's Ear is a series of CDs with music selected specifically for it's demonstrated effect to lower heart rate and blood pressure in dogs. Play the music at times outside of storms as well and associate the music to good things such as meals, play, fun training, cuddles, etc. as this will add to the soothing effect of the music. Then also play the music during storms and have a party with her - play Tug or fetch or give massage or cuddles if he loves those. And watch for the lightning. Once you the flash of lightning (or even if you miss the flash), the moment you hear the rumble/crash shower her with several bites of her most favorite food item. Little bites about the size of a pea. The idea is to create an association that the sound of the thunder reliably predicts food falling from the sky.
A white noise machine with just white noise (not thunder storms) left on near where your dog spends time while you're out can help to block some of the outside sound, along with the Through a Dogs Ear CD left playing on a loop (or at least a classical music station left on). I would leave the volume up - not blasting, but not barely audible. You should be able to hear it from the room next to where it's playing. Again, this is a measure to try and block some of the thunder sounds.
Having a hide-hole is great! I think I might invest in one of those side-table dog crates for your dog (see links below). This way she's in the room she likes to be in, but it's a more confined and safe feeling space. Under the coffee table is still open on all sides and there is no sound dampening effect. I would also drape a blanket over/around the crate to help muffle sounds. If she is comfortable in there and skilled at getting around the edge of a blanket, I'd drape the blanket so it creates a partial door over the front of the crate so that she has that sound dampening effect more completely. But even if it's just top, sides and back, that will go along way. And if the white noise machine that is just the static style white noise is plugged in near her draped safe crate this may really help her avoid hearing the Thunder Monster.
Make sure that she has experienced the white noise machine playing the static noise on many occasions without a storm and is comfortable with it before plugging it in near what you are trying to set up as her safe space.
You can also speak with your vet about medication to help reduce her anxiety during a storm. Xanax (alprazolam) and Valium (diazapam) are the preferred anti anxiety medications for storm phobia. They are fast acting and relatively short lived, lasting 4-12 hours and can be given as needed. So if you know a storm is going to roll through a few hours after you leave, giving your dog a Xanax at her appropriate dose before you head out can make a world of difference. The beautiful thing about Xanax is that it has a mild amnesia effect which also means that she won't remember being worried, which can help reduce her fear the next time.
NOTE: Do not allow a vet to prescribe Acepromazine (Ace) for storm phobia. Ace used to be prescribed for fear and some old-school vets will still turn to that. But it has since been learned that while Ace is a sedative and quiets the body, it not only does NOT quiet the brain, it actually heightens sound sensitivity and can create increased fear because the dog is fully aware of the scary noise and is fully aware of her own fear of the noise, but is physically paralyzed by the drug and cannot move to escape. Do not give your dog Acepromazine for thunderstorm fear.
My own dog does really well with Xanax when it's a big storm. In fact, a Xanax with a couple of consecutive storms, and he doesn't need medication for weeks or months after that if the storms are moderate or small/distant (he used to be just as frightened of the really distant storms as the ones passing right over head). But some game play and treat parties with every clap of thunder and Xanax for a couple storms, and he is much better able to cope with the mild to moderate storms. He still needs the extra cuddles, his ThunderShirt and Xanax for the really big storms and the sudden pop-up storms that nobody expected, but he is much improved and getting better as the season goes along.
As for using the thunderstorm setting on your white noise machine to help desensitize your pup, that's a great idea. Start with the volume low enough that she notices it, but does not react to it at all. Play with her and have a treat party with every thunder clap. When she is not even acknowledging the sound anymore, it's time to turn the volume up just a little - just enough for her to notice, but not startle (it might be glancing at the machine or even just an ear twitch). Keep playing with her and treat party with every rumble of thunder. When she's not acknowledging the thunder, it's time to nudge the volume again.
Do this over several sessions. You may find that you can raise the volume a couple times in a single session. Or you may find that it take several sessions at one volume before you can raise it even a little bit. How fast/frequently you raise the volume is entirely up to your dog, based on her comfort level. And if you raise the volume and she suddenly starts showing stress signs such as panting, pacing, trembling, trying to hide, unable to focus on you and your game, refusing treats - then you turned the volume up too high. Lower it to a level she was not at all concerned about and work there for a while and then do smaller increments of volume increase. If you can't create smaller increments of volume increase by the volume control, you can move further away from the source - maybe even to another room - or you can drape a towel or blanket over the machine to muffle it just a little to help you better control the volume increase.
Through a Dogs Ear CD options
Variety of end table crates (make sure there's a comfortable bed in the crate and something she likes to chew on is left in there as chewing is a self-soothing, stress relieving behavior.
I hope some of these options prove helpful both for ways to help reduce her concerns about thunder in general and for management when you're not home during a storm.
Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance or to update on your progress with her.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Worcest, MA Behavior Specialist
Masters Candidate - Animals and Public Policy (Animal Behavior)
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine