One of the things I love so much about Golden Retrievers is their easy going nature. They are such relaxed dogs, and with a few exceptions, they can readily adapt to most any circumstance. They are calm, that is, until a thunderstorm is on the way. This is not an issue for all dogs, but for many. And for the dogs that find it upsetting, it can be quite frightening for them.
Why are dogs afraid of thunderstorms? Well, there is much debate about that one! Search it online and you will find a number of answers. Some even say it is merely a learned behavior where the dog receives reinforcement by having their fear comforted by the people that care for them. Some explanations get into complicated issues of a breed’s specific traits and how those traits can become out of balance in a storm. For example, a herding dog who’s an indoor dog has no sheep to tend, and becomes frustrated when a storm is on the way. The bottom line is that a lot of what I’ve read about it is simply somebody’s opinion on the matter.
So, I’m going to share my personal opinion on the situation. I have drawn my personal conclusion by carefully watching my dog’s response to storms, reading and watching a number of science shows on storms.
I first discovered Willie’s fear of thunderstorms when he jumped into the bed with me, panting heavily in my face! He was shivering uncontrollably. It was just terrible. I felt so bad for him and had no idea what to do. When a 75 pound dog jumps in your bed in the middle of the night, it’s pretty difficult to ignore!
For a time, the storms were coming in every night either at bedtime or in the middle of the night. Willie would do the same thing every time: jump into bed and wake me up! He would also paw at the carpets, muss up the mats on the tile floors in the bathrooms, and want to go to the basement level. He didn’t want to be there alone, however, so he would go up and down the stairs, jump in the bed, muss up the rugs some more, and just repeat the process. Poor Willie! It was terrible to see him suffering so much. Mom and I would comfort him all that we could, but he was largely inconsolable.
I started to pay closer attention to when he was most upset by a storm and what kind of storm bothered him. I noticed very low pressure was quite upsetting to him. We were in Virginia Beach the day before Irene came. The pressure was so low, even I was bothered by it. I could feel a heavy pressure on my sinuses and in my lungs. Low pressure is a sure fire indicator of a huge storm on the way. At the time, we were staying at a friend’s house. Typically, Willie would sleep downstairs by the front door. The night before we left to come home, he was in my room. It was very unusual. He looked so worried and wouldn’t leave my side. In the morning, he didn’t care about taking his walk, he only wanted in the van so we could come home. So that’s when I decided that low barometric pressure was something to which he was sensitive and it definitely had an effect on him.
Some of the reading I did indicated that the loud noise of the thunder itself could be a trigger that frightens a dog. There’s probably some truth to that. I find most animals don’t like loud noises, and fireworks upset just about all of them. But I don’t think the noise of the thunder itself is what scares Willie. The friend we stayed with lives close to Oceana Navy base. Jets are overheard constantly, and they fly really low. This racket bothers me far more than it ever upset the dog! So, based on this, I really believe that an atmospheric pressure associated with the thunder is what drives the fear, and not just the sound of the thunder by itself.
If it’s not just the sound of the thunder, what else could it be? What about the lightening? Lightning is the visible part of an electrical discharge. Thunder is the resulting sound from the rapid expansion of the air after this electrical discharge. Thus, thunder results from lightning. So, if you see lightning there is always thunder. You may be too far away to hear it as typically thunder isn’t heard 15-20 miles from the lightning strike. (weathersavy.com/lightening.htlm). New high speed photography of lightening has revealed with certainty that lightening storms aren’t just taking place in the skies above us. The ground itself is actually sending up charges to the lightening discharge, encouraging it to strike. I saw it myself on Discovery channel. In an electrical storm, not only is the electricity above us, it is below us.
This is my supposition: the animals that are fearful of thunder, aren’t just afraid of the thunder. The fear stems from their confused reaction to the heightened electrical activity. Poor Willie is extra terrified if there are tons of bright lightening flashes. And then
once the lightening discharges there is a resultant loud BOOM from the thunder. I believe he’s learned to associate the thunder with the electrical storm. It’s the electrical activity he doesn’t fully understand, but is aware of all around him, that upsets him.
Now, how do I help him? Frankly, there’s only so much one can do to help an animal frightened of storms. But, we can help them to some degree, and I think that’s important. I do recommend using Thundershirts. I think that’s helped him tremendously. And I make sure to stay with him if there is an event. It is not a 100% shift, but it’s a big help.
Why does the Thundershirt help? Believe me, this is a wonderful invention, and worth every penny. The garment applies a constant pressure that produces a calming effect. It’s very much like having a constant hug! Wouldn’t you be reassured if you got hugged when you were frightened? It is the same idea behind swaddling infants, and in the research from autistic pioneer, Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin found that gentle pressure gave her immense relief from anxiety. Pressure vests are used by special needs teachers to help calm and focus children suffering from a wide variety of circumstances. (Thundershirt.com website) There is real science behind the Thundershirt. Willie will ask for his Thundershirt before storms now. Really, he does. And he loves it so much that he wants to wear it all the time. I kept it on him during some of the dog training classes to help him focus. When I take him to the dog park at Redwing, I put it on him. There’s far more stimulation in that environment than where we live, so I believe the Thundershirt helps him to be more confident when going into a new situation. He loves it so much that if he sees me pick it up, he comes over and sits in front of me asking to wear it. The dog seriously LOVES to wear garments!
I absolutely recommend you try a Thundershirt if you have a dog that is upset by storms. I would even go so far as suggest it for new foster dogs. It can only help support them in their transition. I also encourage you to pay close attention to your dog’s behavior. See if you can tune in to what is upsetting your dog.
I will have more suggestions for working with nervous dogs in future issues. I encourage you to read about more about it, and to use medications only as a last resort.
Visit Patty & her dog, Willie at everybodyloveswillie.tumblr.com