Thunderstorms can turn some dogs into big scaredy-cats.


Mar 11, 2001
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Thunderstorms can turn some dogs into big scaredy-cats.

Research shows some of the fear is genetic and that owners can help ease their pets' panic.

Wednesday, August 29, 2001.

Mark Ellis Dispatch Accent Reporter

Some dogs haven't figured out that thunder is all bark and no bite.

That much is known by dog owners who see their pets tremble, run for cover or attack furniture when -- as is commonly the case this time of year -- the big boomers roll in.

New research indicates that at least some of the fear is genetic.

"It's pitiful to see a German shepherd crawl on his belly at this time when he could be a useful guard dog,'' said Dr. Andreas von Recum, associate dean for research at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

"Some of them destroy furniture out of fear. It's not a laughing matter.''

Thunderstorms are more frequent in hot, humid weather when cooler air aloft "starts to overturn'' on warmer air below, said meteorologist Mark Bacon of AccuWeather.

The July/August issue of The Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association covers a Tufts University study that pegged storm phobia to certain breeds, especially working and sporting dogs. The study did not rule out early-life experience in some dogs.

Herding dogs (including collies and German shepherds) and hounds (including beagles and basset hounds) seem more likely to develop the fear, researchers say. Golden and Labrador retrievers also were mentioned.

Herding dogs are bred to be "highly reactive'' and to bottle up some of their predatory urges. That mix can create an anxious dog.

"In some breeds that is highly prevalent, and other breeds not,'' von Recum said. "It's collies and shepherds and other sheep guards -- and even guard dogs like the big Pyrenees. It's also in whippets.

"I have the feeling it deals with barometric pressure, and it deals with noise.''

The trauma can end the career of a working dog, he said.

"I had a guard dog who would disappear the day before a thunderstorm. He would abandon everything -- house, sheep, everything.

Owners can help their pets by dropping the baby talk during storms, said Dr. Nicole Hird, veterinarian and partner at Northwest Animal Hospital.

"Dogs hear the voice saying: 'You're OK. Your fear is appropriate,' '' she said.

"Make it more of a party time. Use an upbeat, matter-of-fact voice . . . modeling for them brave behavior and happy behavior.''

Dr. Michael Seimer, veterinarian owner of Suburban Animal Clinic, sees storm phobia "fairly frequently.''

"Some dogs go bananas,'' he said. "We see it with thunderstorms, and we see it around the Fourth of July with firecrackers.''

Medications are available but anticipating a storm in time to avert panic can be a challenge, he said. Dog owners with time and patience can condition their dogs during low- grade storms with confident behavior, Seimer said.

"No one single thing can affect a dog more,'' said trainer Joey Byas, owner of the Ohio State K-9 College.

"I have seen more German shepherds afraid of thunderstorms than any other breed of dog,'' he said.

Still, Byas figures genes play only a small part in storm fear.

He said he can solve the problem in most dogs.

"I go right out before the thunderstorm, when the wind starts to kick,'' he said. "I'll play ball, take out a bone, a piece of meat -- anything that dog loves. I'm out there with them.

"You have to find out what motivates that dog in the most positive manner.''

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