Booms and Trembling - June 2013

By Dr. Karen Stokes

With the arrival of Summer, and Independence Day celebrations looming, many of our dogs may soon experience anxiety due to a behavioral condition known as thunderstorm or noise phobia. Although there are medications that can be given to help our dogs weather the literal and proverbial storms, you can also use behavior modification techniques to help decrease anxiety without the need for medication.

First, do not coddle or reassure your dog that everything is going to be OK as he or she shakes, whines and paces. In a dog’s world, this is actually seen as reinforcement for the anxious behavior. As a rule, if your pet is not harming himself or the environment, then do not intervene, just ignore the behavior. Do offer a safe, secure place for your dog to go. Bring out the kennel or open a closet door so she can hide inside. (Remember how cozy the back of a closet was when you were a child playing hide and seek, and how secure you felt nestled into the coats or clothes that smelled of the comforting familiarity of your parents?)

The time to get excited and reward your dog with lavish attention and treats is when he ventures OUT of the kennel or closet to explore. Then you will be rewarding the behavior you want your dog to have: brave, calm behavior. You should act happy and peppy at this time, ignoring the thunderstorm, because it is time to play.

Play is another tool you can use to curb anxious behavior. A dog that can blow off steam and engage in a fun activity like fetch or “find the toy” is learning an appropriate displacement behavior. So, if your dog is able to focus on you or a favorite chew toy, use these diversions to help relieve anxiety. In fact, if your pooch loves rawhides, perhaps the only time she can have one is when there is a thunderstorm or fireworks going off. Chewing her anxiety out on an appropriate object is a much better option than pacing and whining. Also, it is a lot easier if you can have your pet chew on a rawhide at 3 a.m. as opposed to playing fetch!

Coupling is another strategy that can help. Play a favorite CD of soothing music when your pup is relaxing, while there is no anxiety provoking stimulus. Here you are coupling a good behavior with a sound, just like Pavlov’s dog and his dinner bowl and bell. If you do this for at least one month, on a routine basis, then playing the same CD somewhat loudly during a storm will not only help reinforce a calm behavior, but may block out the sounds that come with storms and fireworks.

Thundershirts are very popular and can be a great tool for managing stress during storms. BUT you first must perform the coupling exercise described above, having your pooch wear the coat while he is relaxed and calm. Otherwise, the physiological benefits of applying full body pressure will be overpowered by the release of epinephrine, a stress hormone that courses through your dog’s body when the stressful booms begin.

In fact, if you use the coat with soothing music and a favorite chew toy for at least a month, you’ll then have a triple-threat against anxiety to use when rough times come around. Sometimes, I’ll even suggest giving a sedating antihistamine, like Benadryl, 1 hour before using the coat, music and rawhide. This way, you can use sleepiness to your advantage.

Lastly, I want to mention medications that are commonly used to help with a dog that just can’t cope. I will always recommend sedating antihistamines, like Benadryl, as a first choice because these are easily obtainable over the counter and are very safe. Other medications that can be used include sedatives, like Acepromazine, or an anxiolytic, like Xanax. Yes, even dogs can take Xanax, also called Alprozolam. The difference between the sedative and anxiolytic is that the latter decreases the anxiety. The sedative does nothing for anxiety, but is merely a more potent sedative. Some pet owners want their pets to be “knocked out,” and some pet owners don’t like the “zonked” behavior sedatives can cause and want their pets alert, but calmer. None of the medications is a “wrong” choice, one will be a better choice for your pet, so speak to your veterinarian about which medication would be safest. (Dogs that have seizures should NOT take Acepromazine, ever, as it lowers seizures threshold and can cause a dog to seizure.)