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Animal instincts

The Shocking Truth

Calming Fido’s fear of thunderstorms

Several years ago, I was consulting with a man about his dog’s thunderstorm phobia. As I quizzed him about the details, he volunteered that his dog, a German shepherd, would find the nearest sink during storms and sit in it. That’s a strange image: a ninety-pound German shepherd sitting bolt upright in a sink. At the time, I simply wrote it off as quirky. The next dog I saw with the same phobia, another German shepherd, also sat in the sink during storms—as did the third dog.

Intrigued by the emerging pattern, I asked the fourth owner of a storm-phobic dog whether his dog sat in the sink. “No,” he replied. “My dog sits in the bath.” The list of strange refuges during storms grew to include shower stalls, empty hot tubs, radiators, and the backs of toilet tanks. One dog even chose to stand ankle-deep in an outdoor paddling pool.

What was it all these places had in common? A former veterinary student, Morgan Long, V87, an electrical whiz, pointed out to me that all these locations were electrical grounds. A light bulb went off in my head and the “static electrical theory” of thunderstorm phobia was born. To test the theory, a Tufts pharmacologist, Louis Shuster, and I had some storm-phobic dogs brought to the Van de Graaff generator at Boston’s Museum of Science. Inside the Faraday cage, the dogs and I were exposed to hundreds of thousands of volts of static charge. All my hair stood on end, and I felt slightly Dr. Who-ish. The dogs appeared to experience the same kind of hair-raising sensation—but did not erupt in full-blown storm phobia.

Perhaps, I concluded, a statically charged dog would panic only if it had previously experienced a shock, especially one delivered to a sensitive area, such as the muzzle. Maybe dogs learned by trial and error that they received no shock in certain “safe places,” and would seek them out during storms. This explanation jibed with what owners of storm-phobic dogs told me: the onset of severe storm phobia is often sudden, occurring during a particular storm even though the dog has been through many storms before. From then on, any aspect of a thunderstorm—the noise, and even the approach of a storm, which some dogs appear to sense even when there is not a cloud in the sky—sets off panic.

Years after elaborating the static theory, I was contacted by a man named Tom Critzer, who had read something of mine on the theory. Critzer, an expert on human phobias who also had a good working knowledge of electrical matters, took it upon himself to create a cape with a silvery antistatic lining. He surmised that the Storm Defender, as he called the cape, would serve as a portable Faraday cage to protect dogs against accumulating static charge. Critzer told me that he had sold 180 of the capes, all of whose purchasers reported that it brought relief within one to three storms.

I thought I had better test the cape myself. With the help of our behavior service coordinator, Nicole Cottam, I conducted two studies. In the first, eleven of the fourteen dogs we tested were distinctly improved, according to owner reports. In the second study, fourteen dogs were fitted with the Storm Defender cape and another fourteen with a placebo cape that lacked the antistatic lining. Both groups responded positively, but the treatment group showed much greater improvement. One of the dogs in that group would run to the place where the cape was hanging during storms and look at it longingly until his owner put it on him. I later learned about another dog that showed no improvement during the first storm—but by the third storm actually went to find the cape and brought it to his owner. These anecdotes strongly suggest that at least some phobic dogs get relief from wearing a cape during storms.

Just when we thought we had this whole issue wrapped up, so to speak, along came a new device, the Anxiety Wrap, designed to work in a completely different way. This snug-fitting jacket is supposed to hug the dog, making it feel safer. I might have been skeptical had it not been for some research I had done years earlier with Temple Grandin, the famous autistic animal behaviorist. Grandin and I had placed pigs in a padded V-trough designed to reproduce the relaxing effect of the now widely used squeeze machine that Grandin had invented for people with autism. Sure enough, the squeeze chute did relax the pigs, apparently by stimulating the release of endorphins.

I never thought I would be researching the mechanism of why a hug feels so good or why swaddling babies stops them from crying, but that’s exactly what I have been up to. Studies of the Anxiety Wrap in our clinic—so far, without a control group to measure the placebo effect—have been encouraging: signs of storm phobia were cut by half, and 80 percent of owners said they would use it again.

Not to be outdone, the Storm Defender cape now comes in a tight-fitting version, which we are currently testing. This belt-and-suspenders approach might be a catch-all, reducing unpleasant sensations, whether caused by static shocks or by the general scariness of storms. Whatever the final outcome of the studies, it seems intuitive that not every cape needs a silver lining. Perhaps all some dogs need is a hug.

One of the world’s leading animal behaviorists, Nicholas Dodman directs the Animal Behavior Program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and is the author of four bestsellers in the field. His latest book is The Well-Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman’s Seven Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend (Houghton Mifflin).

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