November 23, 2015
Question: I have a three-year-old viszla named Jagger Rose. She has been a great bird dog and companion. She lives in a 12-ft. kennel in my garage with an insulated house. Here is the problem. Starting in her third year of life she gets extremely worked up before and during all storms.
It is so bad that she scratches the door of her kennel until it falls off. She also scratches the side of her house from the outside. I have rebuilt her kennel three times this summer. Once the storm is over, she seems fine.
She is great when hunting and has no issues with gunfire. Is there anything I can do to help her through these terrible times? I do go out and try to calm her or walk her to calm her down with no luck. Any thoughts? Jagger needs your help!
Answer: I have sure dealt with similar issues in my own dogs over the years and with even more dogs for clients. We have plenty of storms roll through Iowa in the spring and summer.
Historically Acepromazine, or "Ace," was the drug most commonly used. It seems to be effective for storm anxiety in dogs. It needs to be administered prior to the storm or other anxiety-inducing event. If the dog gets wound up before the medication is given its effectiveness can be greatly reduced.
While this drug has been very useful in limiting the damage dogs do to themselves or their surroundings, it may just be tranquilizing them and not necessarily reducing the fear in their brain.
Newer drugs are giving us options for decreasing storm anxiety in dogs. Most of these are labeled for use in humans. DO NOT give human medications to your dog without direct advice from your veterinarian about dosages and side effects.
Many experts are now recommending daily use of Prozac or its generic equivalent through the storm season and sporadic use of Xanax or a generic equivalent for treating storm phobias on an as-needed basis.
These drugs are hopefully targeting storm anxiety in dogs more directly and effectively for the dog. But again, please get your veterinarian's advice before using any of these medications.
Also, before we jump to chemical solutions like I just did, we need to do everything else we can to help manage the situation. Do anything possible to shelter her from the sights and sounds of the storm. I leave the lights on at night to reduce the flash of lightning in the house and leave a radio or TV on.
I also let my wife bring the dog into our room to lie next to her on the floor when things get really bad. They are both convinced this works the best.
You can also do training to encourage the dog to develop confidence in its safe area, the kennel, a closet, or next to the bed. This can be done with positive reinforcement. Calm behavior can be rewarded at any time or location. Desensitization with low levels of recorded storm noise may help.
Start with very low non-threatening volumes and gradually increase. Don't rush this process. Unfortunately I don't think there is anyway to desensitize a dog to the barometric pressure changes that seem to start these episodes before the storm even arrives.
Counter-conditioning is another training method that can help. This involves giving treats and praise as the negative stimulus is occurring. Hopefully the dog will eventually associate impending storms with the positive of the treats and praise and will overcome the phobia.
Punishment should NEVER be part of any training regimen used to reduce storm anxiety in dogs. Talk to your veterinarian about what methods and medications are best for your situation.
Contact Dr. Holcomb with your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org