How can you help a dog overcome thunderstorm anxiety?
Some dogs become increasingly afraid of thunderstorms as they get older (these phobias most often develop in sound sensitive dogs between the ages of two and four years). Mild cases can be helped by teaching the dog to asosciate something they love with the beginning stages of a storm. For example, if you have a dog who loves to play ball, start playing ball at the beginning of a storm, long before the thunder starts. That way the dog can develop a learned association between the signs of a storm (the wind coming up, the sky darkening, the barometer dropping) and feeling relaxed and happy.
Once the thunder starts, continue playing ball, but stop if the thunder gets too loud that the dog becomes frightened. Don't try to coerce the dog to play, if he's too frightened to play, stop and let him settle down beside you in a quiet place. If you can, find a place in the house where the thunder is not so loud, and then sit quietly with him, using long, slow massage-like strokes to help calm him.
Of course, you can't do this if you're not home, but many dogs with mild cases respond to these methods even if you can only do them part of the time. You can also try homeopathic drops in your dog's water, a kind of touch therapy called Ttouch®, giving your dog melatonin or consider the use of more powerful drugs that act to quiet him. Be sure to consult with a Veterinarian or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist before treating anything more than a very mild case --- it might make the difference between a successful intervention and years of problems down the road. If your dog panics and exhibits panting, dilated pupils, drooling and /or frantic actions to hide or get away, you should consider more than behavioral therapy and discuss traditional and/or alternative medicine with experts to help develop a customized plan.
Patricia McConnell Ph.D., is an adjunct assistant professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. Her company, Dog's Best Friend Ltd., specializes in family dog training and treating aggression in dogs.