Guild of Shepherds & Collies

Storm Trauma: When an Athletic Aussie Panics

This Aussie Developed Storm Trauma, Her Panic Could Have Ended Her Life

storm trauma

Violent storms were not in the forecast when Liz Van Wieringen left for work. Without thinking, she closed the door to the basement - and the pathway to safety for her ten year old Australian Shepherd, Rockie.

“I didn’t think of it when I left,” Liz said. “But when we came home I could see how terrified Rockie had been by the sudden storm. There were scratches on the back door where she tried to get outside. She ran upstairs and opened my bedroom door - my doors have flip handles - and pulled the blankets off the bed. Then she ran out of the room, straight down the hall, and in a total panic, jumped out of the second story window.”

She ran blindly as the thunder and lightning crashed around her. Meanwhile, as Liz was leaving work, a frantic woman called her cell phone to tell her that she had Rockie. The dog was more than a mile from home.

Rockie was extremely tired and that night Liz slept next to her on the floor. First thing the next morning, her vet found Rockie had a dislocated hip but no fractures.

“We’re so lucky Rockie didn’t break her neck or back when she fell,” Liz said.

Rockie wasn’t always afraid of storms, but it started during a spring storm. Liz was playing with her new baby son on her bed when Rockie, then six, leaped onto the bed in a panic. Something she never did. Liz felt something changed and began looking for ways to help her Aussie feel safe again during thunderstorms.

Static Electricity and Storm Phobia
In the mid-1980’s, Nicholas H. Dodman, director of the animal behavior program at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts, was working with student, Morgan Long, on storm phobias when they discovered a pattern. Dogs with storm phobia consistently went to places where electricity was grounded. Dodman wrote in a university publication that the onset of severe storm phobia is often sudden even though the dog has been through many storms (1).

Static electricity builds before thunderstorms and it is that static electricity that produces lightning. Dogs sense this static as the storm builds. Dodman feels fearful dogs had experienced a static shock during a storm, most likely in the muzzle and this is the start of storm phobia.

Several years later, Tom Critzer sought out Dodman after reading the chapter on storm phobia in his book, “The Dog Who Loved Too Much”. Based on the research, Critzer developed a foil lined “cape” he called Storm Defender ™ and asked Dodman to test it. They found the metallic lined cape discharges static electricity from a dog's fur and protects the dog from static charge buildup. All of the dogs in the study who wore the foil lined capes were calmer during storms and were relaxed after wearing it in one to three storms (2).

Pressure Wraps and Endorphins
An alternative to the cape are pressure wraps. Products like the Thundershirt™ uses body pressure to reduce anxiety. Dodman’s studies showed they worked too, especially for other types of anxiety, with the exception of separation anxiety (3). Researcher Temple Grandin has shown that pressure on the body stimulates the release of endorphins that work to calm the individual (4).

Rockie’s hip healed and today when storms approach, Liz uses a thunder coat, applies essential oils to the dog’s fur, and if Rockie is too upset, Liz places her in her kennel kept in a closet under the staircase. Oh yes, the door to the basement is always open.

“If I am awake, I put the oil on her and the coat and let her decide,” Liz said. “Sometimes she is okay staying by me if I talk to her. Other times the storm anxiety is too much and she goes to her kennel. I try to make her feel safe.”

(1)  Dodman, N. The Shocking Truth Calming Fido’s fear of thunderstorm, Tufts University, Tufts Magazine. Fall 2011.
(2)  ibid
(3) Johannes, L. Putting the Squeeze on Doggie Anxiety, Wall Street Journal (2011).
(4) King, C., Buffington, L., Smith, T.J., Grandin, T., The effect of a pressure wrap (ThunderShirt®) on heart rate and behavior in canines diagnosed with anxiety disorder, Journal of Veterinary Behavior (2014), doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.06.007

Article By:
Bobbie Kolehouse

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