It’s really okay – comfort your dog in a storm

The recent Modern Pet Dog seminar focused on all things summer. In this second installment of what was covered, we cover how to help dogs that have storm phobias and also dog park safety. Read the first installment about tick prevention and heat safety.

Keeping your dog safe when the sky becomes scary

Louise Colombari – Pittwater Animal Hospital said that scientists still aren’t sure why dogs are scared of storms – it could be the noise, lightning, the smell, a drop in barometric pressure or a combination of these elements. With their acute smell and hearing, it’s no surprise that dogs sometimes know that a storm is on its way, sometimes while the sun is still shining over your house.

When dogs get scared, they want to take action about it to feel less scared. This may create the vicious circle of storm phobias where because a storm frightened them before, they’ve created an association between the noise and light with being scared and every time a storm rolls through this is reinforced.

Some of the typical signs of fear in dogs as they try to take action includes pacing, panting, trembling, hiding, salivation, chewing things, excessive vocalization such as crying or howling, self-inflected trauma or faecal and urinary incontinence. Poor babies, it must be terrible to feel that scared!

Louise’s key message was: it’s okay to comfort your dog during a storm. There is nothing you are going to do to reinforce the fear. Stroke them, talk to them, do what you have to do to make them feel safe and calmer. Other handy tips are:

  • Provide them with a safe place to hide. Let them choose where they feel the most safe.
  • Block the lightning flashes by turning on the lights and drawing the curtains or blinds.
  • Use soothing music to muffle the storm noise.
  • Play a game to distract them, give them a bone to chew, or feed them their favourite food if they are able to eat so they associate the storm with a positive experience.
  • A lot of dogs benefit from wearing a Thunder Shirt which provides soothing acupressure.
  • Turn on an Adaptil collar, spray or room diffuser which emits calming synthetic pheromones.
  • Homeopathic drops such as Rescue Remedy may also work.
  • In cases where the phobia is severe, speak to your vet about prescribing doggy ‘happy pills’ for their anxiety to help them through.

Dogs don’t have to go to the dog park to have fun

Barbara Hodel of Goodog Positive Dog Training has a theory that of the dogs she sees in dog parks, 50% are clearly communicating “get me out”, 20% are just coping and only 30% truly enjoy going. And while dog parks are a relatively new concept – starting in California less than 40 years ago, owners love them but don’t trainers don’t. Why not?

Barbara believes that dog parks are an artificial set up. We expose our pets to strangers and expect them to play nicely, while in reality dogs usually have a small group of friends they like. While dog parks do offer some benefits – such as being the only place where dogs are legally allowed to run off leash and providing an opportunity for socialisation, the risks far outweigh these.

Cons include:

  • Risk of exposure to disease i.e. unvaccinated dogs
  • Dog owners who have different ideas about appropriate dog socialisation to you
  • High energy and arousal levels meaning some dogs are simply out of control
  • Misunderstood boy language
  • Lack of supervision
  • Accidents can happen
  • A lot of people think bullying is play

Dogs who absolutely shouldn’t go to the park are females in season, males which aren’t neutered (especially once they’re older than 5-6 months) as they are more likely to get picked on, unvaccinated dogs, puppies, bullies or fearful and anxious dogs.

If you still want to go – make sure your dog which is older than 9-10 months old is fully vaccinated and has attended a good puppy pre-school where they’ve been exposed to lots of positive interaction with other dogs. They need to have a reliable recall and show emotional resilience – be able to recover when things go wrong. Watch them closely – bullying (by them or of them) is not okay and watch for loose body language, good play etiquette that ebbs and flows in terms of who is chasing who, play bows etc. Else it’s just harassment!

Watch out for dog owners who may think the dog park is an appropriate place to rehabilitate their dogs who have not been socialised appropriately or have resource guarding issues of their toys by exposing them to as many others as possible without boundaries or barriers. It is not and can be dangerous for your dog. Get them out of there if you have any doubts.

Playing in your back yard, learning tricks or going on interesting walks are suitable substitutes for dogs who aren’t suited to dog parks – they will be better off by not going at all. There’s lots of fun to be had in a variety of other ways.

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