Anyone who has spent a stormy night trying to calm – or ignore – a stressed-out dog can appreciate Kathleen Fobear’s predicament.
When lightning flashes and thunder rumbles, she tries to keep dozens of dogs at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland from losing it.
So when the sky erupted Wednesday night and Thursday, Fobear and her volunteers fought back with classical music and story hour. The shelter has elevated managing thunderstorm stress to a fine art.
The volunteers climb into the cages with the dogs and read aloud as a way to soothe them, while classical music – Bach, Rachmaninoff and Chopin are popular – fans and air conditioning help drown out the worst of the storms.
For comfort, the dogs are swathed in “ThunderShirts” or even old T-shirts. The most agitated go on field trips to foster homes where they can curl up on a bed for the night.
“We have dogs who are incredibly fearful of the thunder, so we try to control their environment,” said Patsy Murphy, the shelter’s executive director. “We truly deal with this all summer, from May to October.”
As thunder shook houses and lightning flashed in the sky this week, harried owners scarfed up ThunderShirts like Scooby snacks.
A form-fitting, one-piece ThunderShirt cinches down with Velcro for a tight, padded fit – like a full body hug. “It looks like a little doggie coat,” said Rebecca Robison, who works at The Animal House in Damariscotta.
She said the outfits are popular with tourists who get caught away from home with their pets.
“You put it on nice and tight, kind of like swaddling a baby. It kind of has the same effect on dogs and cats.”
Kristin Burgess, at Planet Dog’s company store in Portland, said ThunderShirts have been popular sellers there.
Planet Dog also sells calming treats that owners can give to their dogs 20 minutes or so before a storm hits, to take the edge off. And Rescue Remedy, a liquid tincture, can be dribbled on a treat for the same effect. (Made from flower extract, it’s also available for humans.)
“It’s pretty common for dogs to be afraid of thunderstorms,” said Burgess. “We also experience it around the Fourth of July and fireworks.”
Thunderstorms overstimulate dogs’ acute senses, especially their hearing.
“They’re actually hearing some of the thunder vibrations we’re not hearing,” Burgess said. “When humans hear the really loud ones, imagine how that sounds to a dog.”
It’s not just loud noise and bright flashes. Dogs also can sense the sharp drop in barometric pressure.
“They can feel that pressure even before they start to hear the storm,” Burgess said.
Some people say dogs can feel the static electricity that precedes a lightning strike.
Some dogs hide in fear, while others bounce off the walls with excitement.
“It’s an adrenaline rush, I think, but still a form of anxiety if they’re acting out of the norm,” said Murphy.
On its website, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a list of techniques developed by animal behaviorists that can help train dogs to better tolerate storms.
A major part of the message is to be comforting and supportive, to reduce the anxiety rather than be punitive, even if the dog is dashing around the room.
Burgess said an owner can take a dog for a brisk walk before a storm, then help it relax with soft music and a safe space in a bed or crate with some quality treats, “just like if your child was scared or worried, you’d be there for them.”
Burgess also recommends making sure that doors and windows are secured, and that a dog has a collar with tags showing its owner’s telephone number in case it does get loose.
The Animal Refuge League shelter uses many well-known calming techniques and a few of its own. For music, workers prefer “Through a Dog’s Ear,” a collection of dog-soothing classical tunes.
Volunteers cut holes in cereal boxes and stuff dry kibble in them as hard-to-get treats that distract dogs from the surrounding maelstrom. They also use Kongs, durable toys that can be filled and refilled with a treat like peanut butter.
“It keeps their mind occupied, keeps them focused on the task in front of them,” Murphy said.
She said it can be hard for an animal to be in a shelter even in good weather, so workers and volunteers do what they can to help the animals tolerate bad weather.
“We try to control that environment as much as we can,” she said, “keeping the stimuli as minimal as possible.”
No small feat during a thunderstorm.
David Hench can be reached at 791-6327 or at: