Summer is a terrible time for dogs that have developed noise phobias and storm anxiety. Dogs can’t know the wind, swift changes of barometric pressure, booming and flashing of light aren’t going to harm them during the daily thunderstorms common in the summer months. Similarly, they have no way of understanding the reasons behind the strange explosions of the Fourth of July. Our instincts as humans drive us to try to comfort and explain during these events just like we do with our children. Unfortunately, animals need a different approach.
At LakeCross Veterinary, concerned dog owners often ask us for advice about the loud noises of summer. First, we say that you must ignore your dog if it begins to show anxiety to loud sounds. We know that this is very counter-intuitive for a human. We are driven to comfort creatures that are afraid. With our children, when we hold them and explain the causes behind the noises we are teaching them the thunderstorms are to be respected but not irrationally feared. This gives them tools to use when they are young that serve them well through life. The same process is needed for the dogs in the house but it is more difficult to teach.
We advise training all dogs to settle and focus on commands for favored treats and toys. This is true for all commands even if it is just to teach how to sit or wait to go outside. Using basic commands, training a dog during a storm in a room without windows or that has room darkening curtains to lessen the sounds and appearance of the storm, will lessen the animal’s anxiety. Remember to ignore the storm yourself since dogs pick up on how we feel. Providing background noise in the safe room can help the pet not concentrate on the unexpected sounds.
Don’t pet, fuss, or try to reassure your dog when he is scared because he may regard this as a reward for the behavior he is engaging in at that moment. We know how hard this is to do but if you comfort the dog each future exposure can make the behavior increasingly intense. As difficult as this is, try to ignore all fearful behavior. Conversely, don’t punish dogs when they are anxious. This only confirms there is something to worry about and will make anxious behavior worse.
Medications for anxiety are available for dogs but they have many drawbacks. They must be given in advance of the frightening event. Sedatives may make pets sleep through events but do not reduce anxiety. Most anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs must be given for long periods of time to be effective. None of these solutions train the behaviors away. Natural products like dog-appeasing pheromones, herbal calming agents, and anxiety wraps can all help but the most important thing is to teach your dog the tools he needs when young to serve them well throughout their life.