Summer Troubles

Help your dogs love the rain

Besides the increased risk for heat stroke, summer also brings a couple of other potential sources of stress for our dogs.  In many parts of the country, summertime thunderstorms are a daily occurrence.  And July 4th means fireworks. Herding breeds are overrepresented as being sensitive to sound, so it’s a problem that affects many agility dogs.  A single bad incident can trigger sound sensitivity, and it’s a problem that can escalate over time.

If you have a noise-sensitive dog, managing these issues can be draining and stressful for the pair of you.  Here are some tips and things to try.

  • Make sure your dog has a dark, quiet place to escape to.  Some dogs prefer to “hide” during a storm, and manage as long as they can do this.  However, don’t confine your dog to a crate unsupervised unless you know how your dog will react, as some sound-sensitive dogs will hurt themselves in an attempt to escape.
  • Don’t pet and verbally comfort your dog, telling them it’s “ok.”  What you are actually doing is positively reinforcing your dog for being scared.
  • Don’t correct or punish your dog for being scared, as this can also make the behavior worse.
  • Try behavior modification early on, to try help counter-condition your dog.  There are many noise CDs available that you can use to teach your dog to react more appropriately.  It can get harder to do this later on, as your dog may develop additional triggers of their fear, like pressure changes or the smell in the air, which can’t be simulated.
  • Try a calming wrap.  There are a couple out there, but the one I’ve seen used most commonly is the Thundershirt.  It’s a shirt that you wrap tightly on your dog and velcro snuggly.  Anecdoctally, I’ve had several people tell me it helped their dog.  I’ve also had a few people tell me it didn’t do anything for their dog.  That said, it is guaranteed, so if it doesn’t work for your dog, you can get a refund, and it’s not something that’s going to hurt, so I definitely think it’s worth a try.  I hope to get one for Shiner in the future.
  • Use medications if needed.  If you have a dog with severe storm anxiety, an anxiolytic that works quickly may do wonders for your dog.  My personal preference is Alprazolam, which has worked great for Shiner and many of my patients.  The downside is that dogs will develop a tolerance to this medication if used routinely, so it’s only for use when you know a storm or scary event (like July 4th) is coming.  Ideally, you want to give it 30-60 minutes prior to the storm.  You want to avoid just giving a sedative (like Acepromazine), as it does nothing for the underlying anxiety, it just tranquilizes the dog.  This can sometimes make your dog worse, because they are still scared, but are now unable to “escape” and feel off.  In severe cases of storm anxiety, where the dog is hurting itself because of it’s fear, I will sometimes use a combination of Alprazolam with a low dose of Acepromazine.  Talk to your vet about their recommendations.
  • Consult with a veterinary behaviorist for a detailed plan to treat your dog’s noise phobia.

One more thing of note.  My first two Shelties, Shiner and Mardi, are both scared of thunderstorms.  Shiner is also afraid of fireworks and gunshots, and is the more severely affected of the two.  Having lived with the two of them, I wanted to do everything I could to avoid having any new dogs developing this problem.  Of course, one component is genetics and their inherent temperament, and that I couldn’t alter.  What I did do was make a point of playing with Trip and Ticket as puppies everytime I was home and there was a thunderstorm.  I wanted them to associate storms with fun things, like playtime.  I also limited their interaction with Shiner and Mardi during a thunderstorm as puppies, since I didn’t want them to learn that there was something to be scared of.  Obviously there are many factors involved, but both Trip and Ticket can sleep through a hurricane and care less about what’s going on, which makes our lives so much less stressful.

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