A. Some breeds and types of dogs seem to be more high-strung and sensitive to noise, but the truth is that any dog can become terrified of storms. After all, a storm is more than just thunder: The atmospheric pressure changes, the sky lights up, static electricity builds, and rain pounds on the roof. The smells in the air are so different that even we scent-challenged humans say, "Smells like rain." Imagine what an incoming storm smells like to our dogs!
For some dogs, fear of thunderstorms increases because their people mishandle the early signs of fear-either by soothing the dog or by punishing her. Soothing ("Poor baby! Don't be afraid. Come here and get a hug.") rewards the behavior; punishing makes a scary event even more frightening. Some dogs get so wound up that their fearful behavior becomes a reliable weather predictor for their owners, because dogs can sense a storm approaching long before we can.
Sensitivity to thunder is easier to prevent than to cure. When puppies and young dogs show concern, one strategy is to distract them. Give them something positive to do, such as starting a training session with lots of treats, or playing a favorite game. In other words, ignore the storm, distract the dog, and set the tone by acting unconcerned. With a new dog, the first time there is a storm pretend it is an invitation to a "storm party." With every crack of thunder, respond, "Whoopee! That was a fun one, here's your storm cookie!" Couple this with happy requests for simple obedience commands, and the dog will soon look forward to storms.
Once a dog has developed a full-blown phobia, though, the fear of storms is quite dramatic-and can be dangerous. Some dogs may tremble, others may destroy their surroundings, and still others may bite out of fear.
If your dog is afraid of loud noises that you can predict-fireworks on holidays, for example-ask your veterinarian to prescribe a sedative for your pet just for those days.
For fearful dogs who live in areas that get a lot of thunderstorms, your best bet is asking your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist. A veterinary behaviorist will work with you on a treatment plan that may include medications, counter-conditioning, pheromones, and even anti-static jackets in an effort to help a dog to relax during storms.
Q. Do dogs get depressed?
A. The emotional range of a dog is not all that wide or deep, to be honest. That's one reason why a dog who seems to show what, in humans, might be signs of depression -- lethargy, loss of appetite, changes in normal sleep patterns -- is more likely to have a physical problem than a mental one.
Still, there's no denying that many dog lovers have observed what looks a lot like grief in pets who have lost a family member, either four-legged or two-legged. Perhaps the most well-known example of canine grief is that of Greyfriars Bobby, the terrier who visited his owner's grave in Scotland every day for 14 years, until the dog's own death in 1872. The fact that people noticed and rewarded the dog with food and shelter for his loyalty might have played a factor in his behavior, but we'd hate to ruin such a good story.