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Q: Can you suggest some ways to cope with our dog’s fear of thunderstorms? Not only is our dog miserable, but she’s driving us crazy.
A. Thunderstorms are more than just noise: The atmospheric pressure changes, the sky lights up, rain pounds the roof and static electricity builds up around your pet. One surprising tip that works on a fair number of dogs: Take an unscented dryer sheet from the laundry room and wipe your dog with it lightly. This eliminates the static electricity that builds up in a dog’s coat during a storm, and for some dogs this is all they need to settle down.
Now, since I started mentioning this tip on the national tour for my book Your Dog: the Owner’s Manual, I’ve had a couple of people question the advice. Not whether it works — it does for many dogs, including mine — but because of the supposed danger of wiping a dog’s coat with a dryer sheet.
These folks always point out the scary-sounding chemicals in the product, along with the fact that the manufacturers of dryer sheets caution that the product is not meant to be eaten. Of course, I never suggest feeding the dryer sheet to the dog, but I will say you shouldn’t ever use one on a dog who grooms himself a lot. Why? Because pets with that habit are much more likely to ingest anything placed on their coat via licking.
All you need is a light wipe to reduce the static electricity on your dog’s coat. Try it. If it works, I wouldn’t worry about occasional use. If it doesn’t, then it was worth a try, especially when you consider how much some dogs suffer during electric storms.
For those dogs who can’t be helped with a dryer sheet, all is not lost. Fear of thunderstorms is made worse for some pets because their people mishandle the early signs of fear either by soothing the pets or punishing them. Soothing a dog (“Poor baby! Don’t be afraid. Come here and get a hug!”) rewards the behavior, while punishing a dog makes a scary event even more frightening.
When puppies and young dogs show concern, don’t soothe or punish them. Distract them. Give them something positive to do, such as starting a training session with lots of treats or playing a favorite game. In other words, ignore the storm, distract the dog and set the tone by acting unconcerned.
With a new dog, the first time there is a storm, pretend it is an invitation to a storm party. With every crack of thunder, respond, “Whoopee! That was a fun one! Here’s your storm cookie!” Couple this with happy requests for simple obedience commands your dog knows well, such as sit.
Once a dog has developed a full-blown phobia, however, fear of storms can be dangerous to all. Dogs have jumped through windows, bitten when handled or eaten through walls. If your dog is afraid of loud noises, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist. A veterinary behaviorist will work with you on a treatment plan that may include counterconditioning, pheromones and even an antistatic jacket in an effort to help your dog relax during storms. If all else fails, your veterinarian can prescribe a sedative to use just on days when there are storms or fireworks.
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