Darwin is home to some epic storms, which means it’s also home to some dogs who are epically scared of the sounds, sights, smell and feel of a big wet season thunderstorm.
Storm phobia in dogs is very common and can usually be managed without the need for medication. Storm phobia is not just a fear of the noise of storms (although this is a big factor) but when a storm is on the way, your dog can actually sense the change in smell and “feel” of the environment. You will find they often show signs of anxiety before you even know the storm is here!
To imagine what it’s like for a dog suffering from storm phobia, we must imagine that the dog feels as though it is the prey and the storm is the predator- you can imagine how scary it would be to attempt to escape a predator that seems like it is entirely surrounding you! As the dog feels it is under attack, the "fight or flight" response is invoked, and in most cases storm phobic dogs opt for "flight". The dogs that bark at storms are usually taking the “fight” option.
It is very common to see dogs that have injured themselves trying to “escape” the storm. As the storm progresses, their anxiety escalates to a panic which results in an “*explosive escape attempt”. This escape attempt can see dogs impaled on fences, getting hit by cars and in turn- becoming lost, scared and far away from home.
Not only are we lucky to have amazing storms in Darwin, but we are also lucky (or unlucky some might say) to have Territory Day and the fireworks that go along with it. Fireworks can be equally as or even more scary than storms. They are loud, they create strange visuals for your dog and they also leave a distinct smell that your dog can pick up stronger than we can. Take a moment to consider what fireworks sound like, without knowing what they are. We can certainly understand why our furry friends find them so terrifying!
So what can you do?
Dogs need to feel safe when a storm is happening; they need to feel secure and as much of the noise and feel of the storm needs to be blocked from their environment and view. This is most easily achieved by creating a safe “den” for them. A den can be a walk in wardrobe, a bathroom or laundry, or anywhere small, dark and quiet where your dog can tuck up in a corner and weather the storm. It is best to remove anything that could cause your dog injury, and provide some nice cushy bedding for them to snuggle into. Same rules apply for fireworks- the less stimulus they receive- the better.
As it is unrealistic for us to have a completely sound, smell and sight proof den for our phobic dogs, there are some additives to the makeshift den that can really help your dog get through the noisy nights....
Thundershirts are a snug fitting “jacket” that also contributes to a sense of calm and reassurance and can have truly astonishing results for some dogs. http://testimonials.thundershirt.com/
Homeopet Storm Stress is a liquid that can be given to help alleviate stress and anxiety. This is best given approximately one hour BEFORE the storm comes- the bureau of meteorology website can be very helpful for this! http://www.bom.gov.au/products/IDR633.shtml.
Being there with your dog will also help them to feel safe. It is important to remain calm so they do not pick up any additional anxiety from you. Never yell at your dog in this heightened state of anxiousness as this will only make the problem worse. It has been said not to comfort your dog during these times as this only reassures them that their behaviour is justified- however- this is not the case. When your dog is in a highly anxious state, they are not able to learn and therefore will not understand that you are rewarding their fear. Comforting them won’t make their fear any worse- we can all relate to how nice it feels to have your mum stroke your head and speak to you soothingly when you’re really scared. Just be sure to use a really quiet whisper and gentle, soft, slow strokes.
My mum giving my noise phobic dog Maggie a big cuddle during a storm.
*Reference: Dr. Cam Day