Comfort your dog
There are a lot of comprehensive articles about how to help an anxious dog cope with thunderstorms (and fireworks and the sound of gunshots and so on). Rather than duplicate the efforts of my colleagues, I want to give an overview of the considerations and practices that I’ve found most useful.
But before we start, let me address the elephant in the room:
“I was told that comforting my anxious dog will reward/reinforce his fear.”
That’s not true. Comfort is defined as “the easing or alleviation of feelings of distress.” So, by definition, if it increases your dog’s fear it isn’t comforting. (Other people have made more compelling arguments like this one by Patricia McConell, PhD.)
Since we want to comfort our dogs when they are anxious, I think it is first important to know what they typically don’t find comforting so that we avoid inadvertently contributing to our dog’s distress.
What might not work
Any rapid, repetitive gestures, tactile sensations, or noises are unlikely to comfort your dog during a thunderstorm. That means quickly patting your dog and saying “it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay” probably won’t work. It’s actually more likely to unsettle your dog even more because you are adding sensory input to your dog’s experience that can further disturb his psychological state by contributing to his arousal.
(Don't try to fix what isn't broken. If you do these things and they work for your dog, don’t stop.)
Now, let’s discuss what is likely to be comforting to your dog.
Calm, consistent tactile pressure to your dog’s body can be relaxing. This is similar to the anxiety therapy for people described in the scientific literature as “deep pressure touch.”
You can use this method by applying calm, consistent pressure to your dog’s body by allowing your dog to lean one side of his body into you while you use one or both hands to gently press against his other side.
You can easily do this for your dog from a sitting or standing position.
If you are sitting, it looks something like your dog leaning against your leg (or side if he’s on the couch with you) and you simply putting your arm around him.
If standing, I like to have the dog leaning across the front of my legs while I reach down and use both hands/arms to apply pressure to the side of the dog that is exposed in a way that pulls the dog into me.
You should first try this out prior to using it during a thunderstorm. (This is true for any method.) You may find that your dog prefers slight variations to what I’ve described or he may not like it at all.
You can also use some food treats to lure your dog into the position a few times if he is confused by the whole thing. I recommend using something lower value, like kibble, as you don’t want this to be very excited. Remember: calm, relaxed, reassuring.
Of course, never force your dog to stay with you. Give him the choice to walk away.
The science behind calm pressure
Why does this calm, consistent pressure method work?
I’m not really sure. There seems to be a couple hypotheses in the literature, but I can’t find any overwhelming evidence for a mechanism. The most compelling explanation I found was in a study where the researchers looked at how a weighted blanket decreased the anxiety of people in the dentist’s chair. They showed that deep pressure on the body decreases heart rate, which they think is the result of increased parasympathetic/ decreased sympathetic nervous system activity.
Of course, heart rate alone is not a specific measure of anxiety, but the physiologic effects resulting from modulation of the autonomic nervous system could alter the magnitude of your dog’s anxiety.
Evidence in studies on dogs
Honestly, I have found very little evidence in the literature demonstrating that deep pressure decreases thunderstorm anxiety in dogs. (Here is one study.)
There is a study comparing a placebo “cape” to a static blocking “cape.” (Static electricity may also contribute to the aversive experience of thunderstorms for our dogs.) The results suggested that the static electricity blocking cape is perhaps more effective at decreasing anxiety behaviors than the placebo “cape”; however, both have an effect.
I did not find a study where the pressure comes directly from the owner. I think there is a lot of value in being reassured by someone you trust. This may account for why I see this method work better in real life than what is described in the scientific literature.
Other ways to provide calm, consistent pressure
That is an important point, though: calm, consistent pressure doesn’t have to come from you. You have other options if you aren’t available to sit with your dog.
A weighted blanket might be a good option if your dog likes to burrow. Make sure that if you are offering the use of a weighted blanket to a smaller dog that it isn’t so weighted that they get stuck underneath it.
Play with your dog
At the beginning of this article, I told you that increasing your dog’s arousal will make an already anxious animal worse, but the truth is that it isn’t that simple. For example, play can alleviate stress.
More on using play to help comfort your storm phobic dog coming soon in part 2.
Please note that the scientific literature on all that I’ve talked about is scarce. (If you are aware of a relevant study, please send it to me!) Most of this is based on what I’ve found to be most effective for my own clients over the years.