Since I adopted Layla in late winter, it was several months before I became aware her thunder phobia. The first time a thunderstorm rolled in, my 8-month-old puppy panicked. She screamed and threw herself at doors and windows, trying frantically to escape the loud rumbles. I held her in my arms to keep her safe, and she trembled uncontrollably at each boom. It was clear we had a problem.
At that time, I was relatively new to dog training. Initial attempts to utilize counter-conditioning techniques failed, since Layla was too panicked to be interested in food or toys. All she wanted was to escape or, barring that, to hide under a blanket, pressed tightly against me. She was inconsolable during these events.
After finding references online to the use of melatonin to treat thunderstorm phobia and later reading a Whole Dog Journal article on the same topic, I called my vet for advice. Melatonin is a hormone which is involved in circadian rhythms. Marketed as a “natural” sleeping aid frequently used by jet-lagged travelers, it is generally regarded as safe for people, although like all supplements should only be taken with a doctor’s (or in our case, veterinarian’s) approval. My veterinarian recommended that I try a dose of 1.5mg with Layla, increasing the dose to 3mg if needed.
The melatonin allowed Layla some relief, putting her into a state where she was still nervous but was able to eat treats. I began counter-conditioning exercises, feeding her a small treat following every rumble of thunder (yes, every rumble… even those at 2am). We used a similar technique when fireworks were going off.
Over the course of nearly two years, we continued to work on Layla’s response to thunderstorms. While she no longer panicked, she was still apprehensive. At one point, she had a breakthrough panic attack when I was working on the Fourth of July. In spite of her melatonin and a stuffed Kong toy, she attempted to claw her way out of her crate, breaking several toenails and splitting one all the way up to her toe. The blood-splattered crate looked like it belonged in a horror movie, and Layla limped for several days afterwards as she would not allow me to remove the painful split nail (she chewed it off before her vet appointment to have it removed under sedation).
The next spring, I consulted with a board certified veterinary behaviorist about Layla’s anxiety issues. My biggest regret is not doing so sooner. In spite of the high cost of a consultation, this is the single best thing I’ve ever done for my dog’s quality of life.
Our veterinary behaviorist recommended discontinuing the melatonin and switching to two anxiety medications, clomipramine and alprazolam. The clomipramine is a tri-cyclic antidepressant that is given daily, and the alprazolam (Xanax) is a benzodiazepine that was to be given situationally during thunderstorms or fireworks.
These medications did not sedate Layla, but they did cut through her anxiety. Her personality didn’t change at all, but she was suddenly able to make it through even noisy thunderstorms without freaking out.
Suddenly, the counter-conditioning exercises began to work. After each rumble of thunder, Layla would perk up and wag her tail hopefully, waiting for her treat. She began to seek me out during thunderstorms, happily bouncing up to me with a ball or tug toy in her mouth for a play session.
After less than a year of counter-conditioning exercises (which only happened during storms or fireworks), Layla’s alprazolam dosage was cut in half due to her great progress. Six months later, we discontinued it altogether except for during especially noisy fireworks.
To this day, Layla no longer shows any concern during even the worst thunderstorms. In fact, she usually sleeps straight through them! She is likewise unconcerned about booming fireworks (although whistling ones, which appear to hurt her ears, do still bother her). Her calm example has also helped countless foster dogs relax during storms.
Recently, my new puppy began barking and trembling during loud thunder booms. Before her anxiety reached critical levels, I began doling out “thunder treats” to all three dogs, tossing a piece of hot dog or string cheese to each dog following every rumble of thunder. Layla enjoyed the treats, but was somewhat bored by the whole game, lying on her bed with her head on her paws. After a couple sessions, the puppy began reacting to thunder with tail wags and happy body language instead of uncertainty, and we’ve now reduced these sessions to sporadic reminders.
While several of the details in Layla’s case are unusual (she was very young to show such a strong phobic response, and her initial frantic reaction of trying to escape is much different than the subdued and cowering response many dogs show), her case is not so different from many of my clients. Getting a veterinary behaviorist on board to prescribe the appropriate medications allowed Layla to reach a state where she was no longer too panicked to learn, and once that learning had taken place we were able to reduce and eventually eliminate that medication (she is still on a daily dose of a different medication for unrelated anxiety issues).
Thunderstorm phobia is excruciating for many dogs, but it doesn’t have to be. Like Layla, even the worst cases can be improved with a dedicated team made up of the dog’s owner, veterinary behaviorist, and trainer. Your dog does not have to suffer: help is available. If your dog is distressed by thunderstorms or fireworks, please get them the help they need. It will all be worth it the first time you watch your dog sleep through a thunderstorm, completely unconcerned by the noise surrounding them.