Q: My Giant Schnauzer, Luka, is absolutely terrified by fireworks and thunder. Is there anything I can do to either desensitize her or to calm her down? Is there anything I shouldn’t do?—Giant Lover in Lubbock
A: First, provide Luka with a “safe area” such as her crate (leave the door open and let her make the choice) or the bathroom. Many dogs ride out storms in the bathtub or near the toilet since both are grounded, which may protect them from being shocked by the static electricity in the air. You can also counteract static with a Storm Defender cape (stormdefender.com), or by wiping Luka down with a non-toxic dryer sheet.
Body wraps can also help, as they calm dogs via uniform pressure in the same way that swaddling infants soothes them. Place a small t-shirt on Luka and gather the material with a rubber band over her back (avoid the spine) so it fits snugly, or purchase a ready-made wrap such as the Thundershirt (thundershirt.com). Associate wearing the wrap with treats or games so it doesn’t become associated only with frightening events.
You can try desensitizing Luka to the scary sounds by using sound desensitization CDs (e.g., calmaudio.com). Play the track constantly at a low enough volume that Luka hears it but doesn’t react; then gradually and incrementally make it louder. This may not entirely solve the thunderstorm issue, though, since barometric pressure and lightning are also involved. Another type of recording that is useful via its calming effect is soft, slow classical music. Through a Dog’s Ear produces psycho-acoustically designed CDs for this purpose (throughadogsear.com).
A persistent myth exists that you should not comfort your dog during fear-producing events. This is untrue. What you shouldn’t do is seem worried yourself—that might raise Luka’s anxiety level. Calmly sit with her, lay a hand on her, pet in soothing strokes, and see whether she relaxes. Some dogs will settle, while others are calmer when ignored. Many do better with another dog present. You could also try playing with Luka before the storm/fireworks, and see whether she’ll continue playing through the event.
My book, Help for Your Fearful Dog (phantompub.com), discusses other therapies such as flower essences, Ttouch, and Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP), which are worth trying. But since Luka’s anxiety is extreme, you might also want to discuss short-acting drugs with your veterinarian.