Calming your dog during a storm


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The rumble of thunder can make dogs do strange and scary things.

A golden retriever named Charlie would cry like a baby. During middle-of-the-night storms his cries woke everyone in the house, and he would not stop until someone hugged and comforted him.

Some dogs will bark for hours on end before and during thunder and lightning storms. For other dogs, and the people who love them, things are much worse. Crazed with fear and anxiety, dogs demolish furniture or flee the safety of their homes to run outside into the storm and out of their yards.

Crates are a comforting safe haven for some dogs, while others injure themselves trying to break out. In the worst case I've heard, a Pittsburgh dog jumped through the screened window of a second-floor bedroom and was badly injured when he landed on the paved driveway.

There are solutions, but none of them work for every dog. Charlie, the golden retriever, is not my dog, but I am friends with him and his owners, the Nappi family in Mt. Lebanon. None of them sleep well on dark and stormy nights. So when I heard a local dog trainer speak on this topic, I thought of Charlie.

Barbara Nicholas of Wilkinsburg said owners are doing exactly the wrong thing when they hug and comfort a dog that is cowering in fear during a storm.

"You don't want to reinforce" the fear, she explained. "Instead, be positive and upbeat and engage the dog" in pleasant activities, like playing fetch or feeding treats as comfort food.

To me this sounded like a goofy thing to do at 2 a.m., but I've never owned a dog that is afraid of storms, so what do I know? If you're up anyway, it's worth a shot, said Kathy Nappi, when I passed on this advice.

During the next thunderstorm, Kathy and Charlie played fetch with his Kong toy and his soft, plush gingerbread man, and there was no crying. During the next storm, Charlie wasn't as fearful, and he clearly enjoyed his late-night play session.

"We did this for three or four storms, and he never cried again," Kathy told me this week.

And now for another solution that at first blush sounds too good to be true. It's called the Anxiety Wrap. It was invented and patented by dog trainer Susan Sharpe of Huntington, Ind.

Launched in 2001, the wrap is made of a comfortable, stretchable fabric "an animal wears like a bodysuit," Ms. Sharpe said in a telephone interview. "Gentle pressure over as much of the dog's body as possible ... helps the dog become calm."

There may be some real science involved here, because Temple Grandin favorably mentions the Anxiety Wrap in her latest best-selling book, "Animals Make Us Human." She's a professor at Colorado State University with a doctorate in animal science.

Although Dr. Grandin and Ms. Sharpe have not met, Ms. Sharpe says her invention was inspired by Dr. Grandin, who has autism. As a teenager, Dr. Grandin writes in her book, she invented a "squeeze machine" for herself.

She got the idea "after seeing cattle being put into a squeeze chute that held them still so they could get their shots. When I saw how calm the cattle got from the pressure on their bodies, I built my own squeeze machine, and it calmed my anxiety the same way."

The Anxiety Wrap costs $64.99 to $74.99 at www.anxietywrap.com or by calling 1-877-652-1266. If that's a bit pricey, there are some alternatives.

Dr. Grandin writes that a dog behavior specialist, Nancy Williams, "has had good success wrapping the midsection of the dog with wide elastic bandages that are used to wrap a horse's legs."

"With any kind of pressure treatment, you have to be careful not to leave it on too long," Dr. Grandin writes. "It often works best to apply the treatment for 20-30 minutes, take it off for 30 minutes and then reapply."

Ms. Sharpe says dogs can wear her product for hours during a storm.

Experienced dog owners who volunteer with Going Home Greyhounds have found that their storm-scared dogs, rescued from the racing tracks, are often calmed by wearing T-shirts that have been worn by family members.

Ms. Sharpe said she started out by putting T-shirts on fearful dogs and then added duct tape to make the shirts fit better. That worked for some dogs, she said, but she thinks The Anxiety Wrap works better.


Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3064.


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