Written by Ariele Sieling
Great Pyrenees are notorious for being terrified of thunderstorms, fireworks, and any (as we like to call them), angry sky noises. Not to mention, they are stubborn, opinionated—and huge.
When we first got Octavius from AGPR, we had no idea if he was afraid of thunderstorms or not. But about two weeks later we had a thunderstorm, and it was not pretty. Octavius’s first instinct in a thunderstorm is to climb on top of the nearest human. Not a cute “I’m going to sit in your lap and cuddle until the thunderstorm goes away” sort of way. No. In like a “you’re the tallest thing in the house and thus a ladder that will get me as high as possible” sort of way. It can be quite painful. Not just his weight, but the giant paws and nails scratching against your skin.
He also likes to get up on top of furniture—the couch, the bed, tables. He’s always aiming for the highest possible point during a storm. We like to joke that if he ever got out during a storm, we’d find him at the top of the nearest mountain.
Octavius is not alone in his fear of thunderstorms. We’ve heard stories of Pyrs that like to hide in bathtubs or under beds. Pyrs that bark incessantly until the storm is over. Pyrs that run in circles, pace, hyperventilate, or drool enough to fill an entire bucket.
We’ve seen the behaviors, and we’ve seen the destruction a Great Pyr can wreak. So it’s best to plan ahead and try to help our dogs deal with their fear.
Why Dogs Are Afraid of Storms
It’s simple biology. Fear responses have developed in humans and animals as a way to help them avoid dangerous situations. Dr. Nicholas Doman writes in his book, Pets on the Couch:
“The amygdala, the brain’s Grand Central Terminal for both fear and anxiety, lights up on PET imaging scans in anxious and fearful animals and people. The long-term memory center, the hippocampus, is also involved in propagating the response. Connections between the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus facilitate release of stress hormones, like epinephrine and cortisol. Epinephrine increases heart rate, blood pressure, and the caliber of the respiratory passages…. In addition, endorphins are released in reaction to fear. So in both people and nonhuman animals, the same neurotransmitters are released in brain regions that deal with anxiety and similar behaviors result.” – pg 157
Thunderstorms are loud, and dogs have extremely sensitive hearing. Dogs may also see a person or another dog being afraid, leading them to think they should be afraid. Some even suggest that the atmospheric conditions can cause electrical build-up in a dog’s fur, giving them an uncomfortable feeling on the skin—especially for dogs with thick coats.
So what can we do?
Dog’s can often sense their owner’s anxiety. If you are anxious or nervous, it may amp up your dog, making them more anxious than they already are. Your staying calm may also help the dog relax faster, because it shows them there is nothing to worry about. Don’t yell at your dog or discipline them—instead, demonstrate that there is nothing to be afraid of.
And although it is important to be with your dog if possible, it is not beneficial to baby them, talk baby talk or coddle them. Try instead to be somewhat indifferent along with being calm.
If possible, create a safe space for your Pyr to go to during a storm. This might be their crate, the barn, the bathtub, or a basement or garage. If at all possible, play sounds that might help to drown out the sounds of the storm—the TV, a fan, or something like that.
Most importantly, try to be there with your dog if at all possible. You are their safest place.
The best thunderstorm we ever experienced with Octavius was when we were visiting my in-laws. They had a basement room with a loud air conditioner and a TV. As soon as it started to rain, we took him down there and turned on the TV, and he slept through almost the entire storm. Even at home, we will often take him into the bedroom, turn on the loud air conditioner and TV, and let him up on the bed. It’s not perfect, but it does take the edge off of his anxiety.
Another option is a thundershirt. And yes, they do come in Great Pyrenees sizes. A thundershirt is a tightly-fitted garment that fits around the dog’s chest and creates pressure. It acts as a gentle, constant hug, and there is evidence that this sort of feeling can release calming hormones like oxytocin or endorphins. Keep in mind that it is designed for temporary use, and should not be left on the animal for extended periods of time.
Some dog owners swear by a thundershirt or anxiety wrap, while others have not had much luck. Still others have commented that it has helped to take the edge off of their Pyr’s anxiety, though not reduce it entirely. If you have a dog with extreme anxiety, it is certainly worth a try.
This is a newer remedy that many dog owners swear by. There are a wide variety of CBD oil treats for dogs, and giving them one prior to or in the early stages of a thunderstorm can help reduce their anxiety.
Remember to do your research! Be sure to choose a highly-rated supplier of CBD oil, and do your reading to understand how much is appropriate for your size of dog.
If you truly can’t get your dog to calm down during a storm, sedation is also an option. However, you should always, always consult with your veterinarian before giving your dog any medication. They may recommend an over-the-counter option, such as Benadryl, which can induce drowsiness and help your dog sleep through a storm. Your vet may also recommend a prescription option to help, such as SILEO.
While having an anxious dog during a storm can often be trying, it’s important to remember to be patient with your animal. Try different solutions, talk to your trainer, and work with your Pyr to help them feel calmer during storms. Remember that the storms are an extremely unpleasant experience for them, so whatever we can do to make the experience easier is going to benefit you and them both.
Ariele Sieling is a Baltimore-based science fiction writer who is the proud owner of her own Great Pyrenees dog. She, her husband, and Doggo enjoy their time walking in the park, getting treatos, napping in the sun, borking at birds, and schniff-schnoffing the two cats. You can follow them on Instagram @pyreneesgoodboi.
To learn more about Ariele, visit www.arielesieling.com.