We’ve all heard ideas about turning on the radio and giving our dogs tranquilizers when they are showing anxiety during thunderstorms or fireworks. Sometimes these ideas work just fine. Because I’ve heard from lots of people about their dogs getting upset lately, here’s some fine tuning of those ideas and some additional ones that might work for your dog. I will break it down into how to prep your dog way before, what to do right before an anticipated event like a fireworks display, and what to do during the fireworks or thunderstorm.
The problem: Dogs can be triggered by the flash of lighting as a precursor to the loud noises that disturb them so much. Also they can be tuned into the electricity that’s in the air. Or it might be the randomness of the sounds and the pitch of the sounds that are most troublesome. As a result, their anxious behavior is at best annoying, and at worst destructive and worrisome. Dogs that would never dream of running away from home can find a way out of that fenced yard when they are terrified. They can destroy doors, furniture, windows, and floors. Hopefully, your dog was well socialized as a puppy and is used to loud noises and storms, but sometimes as dogs get older they become more sensitive, or they are rescues and you have no idea about their background.
How can we help manage their anxiety? There is no quick fix. But here’s how to do the best we can for our beloved pets.
Way Before: How to prep your dog
Really, desensitization to loud and visual stimuli should begin in puppyhood as part of the socialization process. It should begin with the breeder and continue for the life of your dog. But let’s assume you are on this page because you already have a problem, and you are looking for some help.
When there are no fireworks or thunderstorms, and you have control, you can desensitize your dog by playing a recording of fireworks and/or thunderstorms. Play it very low, below the threshold where it causes a reaction in your dog. Over a period of weeks, make it louder and louder. While it is playing, observe your dog and interact with him normally. If you observe a reaction, turn it back down until the reaction subsides. Over time, this will reduce his anxiety reaction during actual fireworks and thunderstorms. But this doesn’t work 100% of the time, in fact, nothing does. If it were that easy, everyone would know the answer. Read on for more ideas. There are lots of good recordings on YouTube. This requires the biggest time commitment from you.
Teach your dog basic obedience commands or tricks. This can be simple things like heel, sit, stay, come, down, shake hands, rollover, etc. Teach these things when your dog is calm and not during a scary event. Do it on your own or take a class. Don’t send your dog away for training. You are the leader of the pack. Make sure training is fun for your dog. Make sure your dog enjoys learning, gets lots of praise for doing things right, and builds a bond with you. It’s important that your dog knows he’s doing something right and will be rewarded for doing it.
Do fun active things with your dog on a regular basis. There should be at least one activity that your dog will look forward to and know is going to be fun. My dogs’ favorite thing is fetch. My German Shepherds are natural retrievers, and I did not need to teach them to play fetch, I’ve just encouraged it. If you are not that lucky, you can teach fetch, or even if your dog is just chasing things and you have to go pick them up and throw them again, at least it will tire your dog out. Just have lots of things to throw! And that’s the point, you want your dog to be able to do something fun that will make him tired. This might be going for a long walk, a jog, or letting him play with other dogs in your yard with supervision. Tug of war is a good interactive game that builds a bond with your dog. However it is not a good game if your dog tends to be alpha or aggressive. Do not play this game if your dog is likely to bite or even if you just suspect that he might try to become dominant over you. Make sure that if you play this game, your dog knows when it’s over and you keep the tug toy.
Just like with people, exercise reduces anxiety. A dog that uses his body regularly will be calmer in situations that provoke anxiety.
Get your dog used to grooming. Even if you have your dog professionally groomed on a regular basis, get a decent brush with bristles that go down to the skin and get him accustomed to grooming. This will help calm him during an anxiety provoking event.
Right before a storm or fireworks
Do the fun thing! Make sure your dog is tired. This will reduce his anxiety. But don’t make him too tired. Because you’re going to play again during the event. Go ahead and turn on the radio and all the lights in the house. Turn the TV on. Do other loud things in the house like run the vacuum cleaner if that by itself is not disturbing to your dog. Make sure your dog has eaten that day, but not right before the event. Sometimes dogs get nervous and throw up from anxiety.
Important indicator of Anxiety: Appetite is a good measure of anxiety. A really anxious dog won’t eat anything. So if your dog will take a treat that’s a step in the right direction, it means he’s not really overly anxious. If you can get anxiety down to that level, try a treat toy, like Kong, that is made to encourage the dog to work at getting a treat out of the inside of the toy.
Rather than just turning on the radio as background noise, think about what type of music might be best. If your dog is triggered by the pop-pop-pop sound, the low rumbling sounds, or the high pitch sounds of fireworks, try finding some heavy metal music that matches those sounds and can help those sounds to blend in. Obviously you don’t want to turn on the radio to music that your dog will react to. But somehow if the noise is coming from inside the house on the radio, dogs generally accept this better than noises outside the house. So, assuming your dog is in the house, turn on the radio to music that has random beats and high and low pitched noises. At the same time turn on the television and this will add to the randomness of the pattern. Also the random patterns of colors on the TV screen can help the fireworks blend in. Experiment to find out what works best for your dog. I recommend using actual radio and TV rather than tablets computers, or phones. Why? Because you might want to use your phone or computer for something else, and you don’t want to stop the lights and sounds right when it’s needed the most.
Why have all the lights on in the house? Having all the lights on in the house minimizes the contrast of the bright lights flashing outside the house. This works well in a thunderstorm too. Plan for the power to be out! Have a camping light and a battery operated radio at hand.
During the Fireworks or Thunderstorm
The lights and sounds are on already! Do the fun thing again! If your dog can only do the fun thing outside, try going outside, even if the noises are louder out there. Sometimes, but not always, the game is so fun they forget about the noises. Also, strangely, it seems like when they know where the noise is coming from they’re not as afraid. I’ve noticed that with my Jane. If she’s inside and hears the noises, she comes pawing at me, as if to say, “Something is wrong. Make it stop”. But if we go outside in the storm she’ll walk calmly along sniffing and peeing like she always does. Of course this doesn’t work if it’s pouring buckets, but it helps her adapt to the sound as the storm is coming in. When we come back in, she is fine, as if I answered her question, saying, “There’s nothing wrong dear, its just the weather, and I’m fine with it.”
Doing obedience during fireworks can work wonders. Your dog will learn what to expect: praise and treats, and all he has to do is do something right. This gives him a feeling of control and gives you something to do too. Remember not to act afraid yourself. Do some things you normally do. Don’t let the storm stop you. If you try to cuddle your dog, your dog will interpret this as you are afraid too and clinging to him, adding to his anxiety.
If you’re staying inside, play the games as best you can. This is where your obedience will come in handy. Practice heeling, tricks, whatever. Heeling is a great one when dogs are very clingy and follow you around when they are scared. Put the leash on inside the house and heel around the dining room table and over to the other side of the bed. Everywhere. Just make it fun and happy. Give lots of praise for doing anything right, even if it’s a simple thing your dog has done for years, like sit. This gives the dog a feeling of knowing what is expected, doing that thing, and getting rewarded. In other words, a sense of control.
Does your dog shiver and run to the bathtub and get in, beside, or under the bathtub during a thunderstorm? This might mean he’s reacting to the static electricity in the air. Get some dryer sheets and rub them on your dog. This actually helps some dogs but others not at all. It’s worth a shot. If you have cats that lick your dog, do not do this.
Does your dog lean against you and paw at you and pant heavily? Does it try to get up in your lap and curl up next to you? Try one of those Thundershirts that they sell at pet stores or on the internet. Also a t-shirt that’s taped on or tied on firmly can help with pressure.
Another trick is grooming. Using a brush that gets down to the skin with firm strokes can help a dog with generalized anxiety. A dog that merely tolerates grooming might really like it when anxious. Sort of like a kid with autism, sometimes the tactile stimulation is helpful and redirects the mind. This is better than just hugging your dog. You don’t want to praise pawing and jumping on you, but rather redirect him to hold still for grooming.
What about crates? For some dogs, being in a crate is a safe haven, and they will seek it out as a refuge. Others want to be with the family “pack”. So if a crate works, great. Try leaving the door open, and make sure there is something comfortable to lay on, and maybe a chew toy.
Yes, another alternative is medication. However, veterinarian prescribed medication is only good for once in a blue moon. You don’t want to give it the whole week that people in your neighborhood are shooting off firecrackers, or in thunderstorm season, in certain areas of the country, where you’re likely to have one every evening.
There are some anxiety medications that can be helpful that are over the counter in pet stores, and of course on the internet. Most of them will have something like valerian, an herbal anxiety treatment that is available made for dogs in a chewable tablet, or made as a tea or capsule for people. (I can tell you that the tea taste like dirt. Maybe dogs would like it!) Tryptophan ia another common ingredient, as well as chamomile. It’s best to use the type made for dogs so you get the dosage right.
What if all this fails? What if your dog is such a basket case that it won’t even sit or take a treat, let alone play a game? What if despite the radio, tv, and bright lights in the house, your dog is still shivering and shaking and hiding under the bed? Is it possible to just avoid everything? Here’s one more idea. Go for a car ride. Best to have a car that’s loud, an old one that rattles a little bit or has a loud motor. Turn the radio on and just drive around. I know, gas is expensive, and you’re driving around at night, which is not the greatest. But sometimes this will soothe the dog and they will actually fall asleep in the car. Kind of like a crying baby that won’t go to sleep. Of course this is only going to work if your dog is already adapted to car rides!
I hope this has been helpful. Please comment if any of this has worked for you, or with other ideas that have helped your dog.