Tis' the season! In our area we are enjoying a bumper crop of thunderstorms lately; plus at my house at least it seems that we are hearing fireworks more and more. At my previous house, I lived near the riverfront and we had fireworks almost nightly from the Reds and Bengals games and various fireworks displays; my dogs got very well socialized to them and so they and thunderstorms were never an issue. However, it has been almost 4 years since we moved; and since Andy has been gone Cory has suddenly decided that he is worried about fireworks. Great.
These phobias often times seem to worsen with age (though eventually as the dogs get quite geriatric they often get hard enough of hearing that they start sleeping through them). I thought it was good timing to post a few tips for how to deal with the early or milder cases.
Firstly, a word towards PREVENTING problems. When I got both Andy and Cory as new puppies at my old house, I took advantage of the frequent fireworks exposure. EVERY time we heard fireworks I would jump up from the couch, run into the kitchen calling them excitedly, and it would start to "rain cookies"- I grabbed a handful of small treats and literally threw them up in the air so they showered down and the dogs wer diving and gulping them as fast as they could. This created a GREAT positive association with the noise, pretty soon as soon as the dogs heard the fireworks they were running for the kitchen. You can do this at home with new puppies (or even adult dogs- it never hurts!) every time you hear thunder rumble or a neighbor starts firing bottle rockets. It also may work for dogs who are mildly anxious but not in full fledged phobia mode.
For dogs who already are showing signs of anxiety, there are several things that may help. CDs of thunderstorm sounds are not difficult to find; I believe they are even sold at Target; but googling them should provide lots of options for ordering. Start out playing it at a low enough level that you see no reaction from the dog; play it at night just at dinner time or if you prefer, play it and offer special treats and games. Gradually increase the volume until (over probably several weeks) you can turn it up to full, window rattling volume without bothering the dog. This often works; but for some dogs can take a LONG time; also there is more to the phobia than just the noise, so dogs may acclimate to the CD but still show fear during actual storms.
One relatively safe, inexpensive, and benign option to try is melatonin. Melatonin is available over the counter without a prescription as a nutritional supplement; people often take it to counteract jet lag or help them sleep. In dogs there are several uses but one is to help with mild anxiety. Most dogs can take one standard size tablet (usually 3 mg) at bedtime- check with your vet as there are a few contraindications but in general it is safe and has few interactions. Particularly if you catch the problem early, before it is deeply ingrained, this can be helpful.
Another product I have found useful for anxiety issues in general is the DAP collar. DAP stands for Dog Appeasing Pheromone. Pheromones are chemicals that are secreted by the body in order to stimulate a response from other members of the species. It is thought that pheromones function in "chemistry" between people or the "love at first sight" response (though the pheromone colognes do not seem to have any magical powers!). In animals they may serve to help mark territory, send an alarm message, or even guide bees to a new hive. The DAP is the pheromone secreted by bitches when they are nursing their young, and is thought to be a stress relieving substance. It is available commercially as either a spray, or a collar. The collar is similar in appearance to the old flea collars. It lasts about a month; it must be fitted snuggly as the heat from the dogs' body activates the release of the pheromones from the collar. I have used one on my own dog for mild stress related issues and found it to be fairly helpful. It may be one useful tool for dogs with thunderstorm phobias as well. I plan to make sure my dog is wearing a fresh one when he boards by himself for the first time in a few weeks; and also have one for my potential new puppy to wear when he makes his trip to his new home and also begins to travel with us to various dog shows. While I have not found it to be a "miracle cure", I definitely have noticed a calming effect when I have used it on my own dogs and would definitely give it a try.
I often am asked about "thunder coats" or anxiety wraps; these are wrap or jacket type products designed to wrap snuggly around the dog and advertised as helping to decrease anxiety associated with storms. I have not tried them myself and initially was pretty skeptical of how effective they would be; however, in light of some recent studies about how confinement and pressure can relieve anxiety in autistic children I would not totally discount the possibility that they could have some effect. I think it also is possible that many dogs when fitted with such a product will simply refuse to move- don't know that it necessarily means they are less anxious, but may just interrupt the pacing/escape type response. In any case, I think they fall under the category of unlikely to hurt so give it a try.
Some dogs have serious enough phobias that they truly become difficult to live with and may even be destructive or injure themselves. Those dogs may need prescription medications in order to help them cope with their stress. Many of the medications we use take some time to become effective, so it is best to talk to your vet well BEFORE the season starts if you think your pet may have serious enough issues to warrent medical intervention. I am not a fan of tranquilizers for these dogs, as I think it does nothing for the underlying anxiety and may actually accelerate the dogs' fear. In most cases we need anti-anxiety or behavior modifying medications. Talk to your vet about whether or not this may be appropriate.
Finally, a word of warning; July is often a month in which many pets get lost because they are outside in the yard or, even worse, on an invisible fence and panic and bolt during a storm or fireworks. PLEASE remember to supervise your pet closely and not leave him outside unattended this time of year if he tends to have anxiety in response to loud noises, and make sure that he has appropriate identification (collar tags and/or microchip) on at all times. It may save you a lot of grief in the long run!