Dr. John Scanlon - August 2009


Dogs and Storms


Dr. John Scanlon

   I have owned three Labradors who exhibited extremely vigorous semi-deranged and stereotypical behavior before and during violent thunderstorms. As a matter of fact, if lightning or thunder was anywhere near the Mid-Shore region, these dogs would go into their schizoid fear routine and turn our home into a canine looney bin.
    Way before a human could sense impending violent weather, each of these usually placid retrievers would begin to pace without stopping. Each would briskly walk around the room, out into the hall, up, then down the stairs, then repeat its pointless wandering. Sometimes there would be “nesting” activity, endlessly circling head to tail, similar to what many dogs perform briefly before lying down. This would often be accompanied by scratching the floor with a front paw, like trying to dig a hole indoors.  Great for rugs and flooring!
   ‘Round and ‘round they went, always with a worried look, pause, scratch, scratch again, then more circling. Often there was a constant search for human contact. Elbow-bumping, knee-pushing, head-in-the-lap forays took place repeatedly after the pacing and circling finished.
    This behavior was obsessive, driven by unreasoning terror, not simply a Lab’s insistence for attention. It’s easy to spot the difference. I couldn’t distract the dog with any known ploy. Even the highly desired dog biscuit failed to break the pace, circle and bump cycle. The dog felt a storm was brewing that would soon bring great noise and blinding flashes of light upon us. She was not to be denied her ritual.
    By the way, please pardon my use of the female pronoun, but each and every dog I have owned with this fear was a lady. My remembrance of The Storm Terror Syndrome experiences always involved a Labrador retriever with two X chromosomes.
    There was also ubiquitous panting. Continual loud, juicy respirations, always close at hand, accompanied every attack. If the squall line was to arrive after bedtime, sleep would be almost impossible. My wife and I would be violently awakened with the sense that someone had diverted a locomotive through our bedroom. Loud rhythmic chugging coupled with vigorous thumping against the bed and violent trembling on the floor completed the runaway train effect. It was impossible to sleep through it.
    But all this was a prelude, no, an overture to the dramatic canine ballet which took place when lightening burst and Zeus’ voice finally boomed over the house. Pooch panic shot into overdrive. Panting became louder with spasmodic chest wall heaves and great whistling sighs. Her entire body would shake uncontrollably. The floor trembled and the bed rocked. Bladder control became another victim of storm anxiety. This associated with pacing spread the unmistakable aroma of doggy urine over several square yards of carpet.
    If sleep was ever to return, the only real option was to put the dog in the kennel. But at such critical times thunder was booming, lightning flashing and it was always raining like the inside of a car wash. Usually gale force winds were howling like Banshees as well. Pelting rain could immediately soak a person to the bone.
    The kennel was 100 yards away and I had to drag the dog this entire distance. No siree, she wasn’t willingly going into that melee. She would rather dive into the closet to burrow under our shoes, still panting noisily and shaking the entire house.
    Of course, my summer sleep attire (skivvies or less) never lent itself to foul weather dog-walking. But I would man-up and take her out, particularly since Mrs. Doc repeatedly asked about the dog’s welfare and the condition of our wall-to-wall carpeting from her side of the bed. Next morning the dog would act like nothing happened. I would act like a zombie.
    I have asked several friends and a couple of veterinarians about the cause and management of this problem. No one had definitive answers, but there were a lot of opinions. Many thought the problem increased with age, and that has been my experience too. The older the dog, the earlier and more intensely aberrant the behavior when violent weather loomed.
    Some suggested triggers included electricity or ozone in the air, brilliant flashing light and/or loud noise. But for my animals, bizarre activity started when storms were nowhere close, thunder was inaudible to the human ear and no lightning was visible.
    More recently, near real-time weather radar is available on the Internet, so approaching storms can be tracked visually. My most recently afflicted Lab was as good as Nexrad in predicting the storm track. Perhaps, as Butch Chambers suggests, dogs sense the drop in barometric pressure that almost always precedes a violent storm, and this jump-starts their peculiar response pattern. Then, when the storm hits, the noise and light show play an accelerant role. It’s an idea anyway.
    My dogs have all been electric collar conditioned and each was quite familiar with loud gunshots from training, hunting and dog trials. Those things never elicited the kind of terror an impending storm generated.
    Storm phobia also seems to have a genetic tendency. This seems true in my experience because all three afflicted labs were grandmother, mother and daughter. Some experts think weather weirdness may be “contagious.” The notion is that when one dog has a bad case and starts to act peculiarly, nearby animals will pick up the trait. I’ve had as many as 4 dogs in the house at one time during a bad storm. Usually it is just the one known “scaredy cat” who goes bonkers.
    Several dog gurus suggest not to “reward” phobic behavior when it occurs, and this would include storm-related craziness. I guess this means that if, during a thunderstorm, your dog begins heavy, uncontrollable panting and then pees on the rug while running in circles, don’t say “good dog” and pet her. I would agree, but I’m usually too busy wiping up a mess and trying to catch the dog to even think about “good dog.”
    Other recommendations include administering serious pharmaceutical sedation, trying doggie iPods that play soothing(?) music, wrapping Fido in a special security blanket or buying expensive doggie psychology sessions. I will pass on all these, particularly since these recommendations came from folks selling such items or services.
    In the future, I guess the best bet would be for me to get the tremulous dog into the outside kennel at first sign of bizarre behavior when conditions are right for a thunderstorm. Thank goodness for Doppler radar! Preventing anxious storm-driven canine behavior seems unrealistic.