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Thunderstorm and Fireworks Fear
Thunderstorm and firecracker phobias top the list for dog fears. Dogs are fearful for a number of reasons, but two reasons generally pop up. First, they associate the vibration and sound with something bad happening, such as the lights going out when they were a puppy, a crack of thunder just as they were dozing off, or being left tied out as the branches raked past the terrified creature. Most of us can understand how those fears begin; we see the same thing in our lives and those of the children close to us. The second is more closely related to separation anxiety, which is a symptom of the dog feeling as if she should be in charge but is overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. Let me explain a bit more on this topic.
Dogs are pack animals in nature and emotional security is greatly enhanced when there is a clear-cut pack hierarchy. Behavior problems begin to emerge when a dog begins to feel as if it is the leader. Let me give you a few examples: the dog that freaks out as its owner heads out to work; the hound that exhibits aggression at feeding time; the pooch that goes ballistic every time the mail carrier drops a package on the stoop. All of these canines are displaying signs that they think they are in charge and therefore must guard the territory and/or food.
You may be wondering how this ties in with thunderstorm and firecracker fear, but let me give you a different example to illustrate my point. A young child is terrified of getting a vaccination shot at the pediatrician's office. Her mother, knowing how her daughter reacts, takes along a favorite toy. At the appropriate time, she distracts her daughter from the doctor who is administering the vaccine and she is ready with a second diversion when the pain of the injection registers with the little one. The little girl inherently trusts her mother and assumes that no harm will come to her as long as she is in her mother's lap and being played with. It is unlikely that a toy would have distracted this little girl if a staff nurse had tried the same approach, because the toddler would not have viewed the nurse as a safe haven.
Using a similar approach with your dog, the goal is to provide security and distraction. By refusing to dwell on negative aspects, the dog is more likely to view you as a leader and to accept the security a leader provides.
I’ve discussed leadership issues in my eNewsletter, Animal Wisdom, but let me reiterate the key point: Your dog is happiest when you clearly model leader behavior. Your dog will trust your leadership and fear issues will greatly diminish as a result of her confidence in you. (I highly recommend The Dog Listener by Jan Fennell as an excellent tool and coaching guide for modeling leader traits.)
In addition to displaying strong leadership, I recommend using a positive approach in speaking to your dog. By this I mean to tell the dog what you want them to do rather than what you don’t want them to do. For example, you might say something like, “Mindy, there is a storm coming today but I’ve got the radio on, your oils at the ready and you are going to be just fine, relaxing and snoozing.” It may feel a bit silly to give your dog a pep talk, but every time you speak to your pet, whether you realize it or not, your mind sends out images that correspond with your words. Saying things like, “don’t be afraid” creates a picture of a cowering dog—not at all what you want! There is no image for the word “not” and we end up telling the animal the exact opposite thing we intended. It is far more effective—and more easily understood by the dog—to use “if/then” statements or tell them how they should act. Put another way, a math student will learn nothing if the teacher tells how not to work a math problem!
Creating a secure environment by your actions and language is the surest way to an emotionally stable dog. There are a few other tricks that I’ve found helpful in easing a pet’s anxiety over storms and loud noises.
To help your dog feel less affected by the storm, rub her down with an unscented dryer sheet. Thunderstorms are electrical in nature. Your dog’s coat acts like a thousand different lightning rods in attracting static during a storm. Removing the charge from her coat will make her feel more relaxed.
Try keeping your pet in a room with the windows covered (thick blinds or heavy curtains). This reduces the flashes of light pets quickly associate with storms. Turn on some music or the TV. The music should be soothing (no rock-n-roll; think piano concerto or string quartets) and TV programs should be easy on the nerves (no cop, game or exhibitionist talk shows). The goal is to create a pleasant auditory distraction, not to drown out the sound of the storm.
Some dogs respond well to be wrapped securely in a towel. Thundershirts(T) and other compression wraps are very helpful in alleviating physical discomfort. This is especially true of smaller, more nervous breeds.
Two of my favorite remedies also come in handy for storms and fireworks: Peace & Calming, a therapeutic grade, proprietary blend essential oil made by Young Living; and Bach Flower Essence Rescue Remedy. Apply one drop of Peace & Calming to the muzzle, withers or throat (one drop is all you need!). Dosing for the Rescue Remedy is generally 1 drop per 10 lbs., up to a max dosage of 7 drops. Rescue Remedy is best administered internally for dogs. I use a small piece of bread, perhaps with a smear of peanut butter. If the storms are predicted throughout the day you may dose your dog in the morning, again at noon, late afternoon, and, if needed, at bedtime. If you hear that a storm is heading your way, try to give her the remedies 30-40 minutes before the storm, as dogs will be aware of the approaching weather long before we are and you’ll need to allow a little time for the remedies to work.