FIREWORKS, THUNDERSTORMS…our dog, Callaway, hates them. Although he is mellowing a little in his old age, in years past every Victoria Day, Canada Day and Labour Day was a crisis in our house. I find it heartbreaking to see him so distressed. Behaviour experts would tell us not to comfort them, that doing so confirms their belief that fatal danger is imminent; that we are praising their panic. But ignoring that terrified creature just seems intolerably cruel and many of us find it impossible. In the Terp household, emotions aside, it was difficult to ignore Cal scratching out all the screens in the house and then defenestrating himself. Incidentally Peter (Dr. Terp) can, as a result, replace window screens in record time. We now know that industrial strength window screens are much more resilient but alas, not impossible to damage. We consider ourselves lucky though, over the years several clients have reported thousands of dollars worth of damage to their homes, some during a single, unexpected thunderstorm.
So, what to do? There are a variety of behavioural modification techniques that can be employed. It takes time though, a lot of time, and effectiveness varies from case to case. One technique involves playing recordings of the offending dissonance, starting at volumes we almost can’t hear (or at a volume that doesn’t cause stress). I tried this with Cal, to no effect – it seemed he could tell the difference between a recording and the real thing. I recently discovered though, that the recordings in surround sound make them much more realistic. So as they say, try, try, try again.
We have heard reports of some herbal/homeopathic preparations helping to some degree but by and large, most clients say they have positively no effect. I felt Cal was looking at me with a face that said, you’ve got to be kidding. For clients that do find them helpful, a human product called ‘Rescue Remedy’ produced by Bach Laboratories seems to be popular. Reportedly it helps some dogs with other anxieties as well.
Another non-pharmaceutical approach is a relatively new product called the ‘Thundershirt’. Essentially, it is a kind of vest that affixes around the dog’s chest with Velcro and causes chest compression. The constriction around the ribs does 2 things. Number one, it forces the dog (or cat) to breath more from the diaphragm (belly) and less from the thorax (chest). Theoretically, in clinical jargon, this applies pressure to the vagus nerve and helps inhibit the panic biofeedback. It also serves to slow down their rate of breathing, further reducing the build up of the chemical transmitters that reinforce the feeling of panic.
It is important to use this tool appropriately though. If you put the shirt on when your dog’s anxiety level is high and the breathing rate is already rapid, the chest constriction can exacerbate the feeling of panic. It is suggested to introduce the shirt when your dog is calm, maybe as he’s relaxing after a big walk. Once he is used to it and associates it with a kind of serenity, then it can be used in situations where he is anxious.
One thing to remember that timing is critical with any of the tools we use to help curb anxiety. If we wait until anxiety levels are already high, most tools won’t be effective. Once the body is flooded with adrenaline, there isn’t much that can be done. Even pharmaceutical intervention (ie. sedatives) will often have little effect when given at this point. There are a number of prescription sedatives that are very effective when given in anticipation of anxiety. If you think that this necessary for your dog, speak to your veterinarian about your options.
Giving drugs is never without some risk and in rare cases sedatives can cause issues because of underlying medical issues that have not been identified, like heart conditions that don’t show external signs. However, as always, we have to weigh risks and benefits. For a dog with an underlying heart issue it might be better to have a somewhat risky drop in blood pressure from sedatives than for the dog to experience a full blown panic attack (accompanied by a prolonged racing heart rate).
THE GOLDEN RETRIEVER...
For us, we’ve been lucky, Cal’s reaction to thunderstorms and fireworks has become less dramatic over the past few years. I think our screens are safe now and, even though he can no longer fit under our bed anyway, he doesn’t try desperately to get under there anymore. I’d like to think that it’s the result of the work we’ve done with him, but I think we owe some credit to our relatively new family addition, Caddy (the golden retriever). I think a bomb could go off beside her and she would be still be wagging her tail, completely unruffled - perhaps she’s rubbing off on him just a little.