Static electricity and thunderstorm-phobic dogs
March 26, 2006 11:23 PM   Subscribe

I work with dogs who suffer from severe thunderstorm phobia. It's a difficult problem to manage because there are so many stimuli involved - the noise, the lightning itself, the smell of ozone, etc. These dogs seem to be able to sense atmospheric electrical charges that occur during thunderstorms - they feel the static in the air. Many of them head to the bathtub. I assume that the grounding plumbing pipes provide discharges the static. I would like to build something that would help dogs who are fearful of the electrical phenomena that occur during thunderstorms, but I lack the physics background to even articulate clearly what I'm looking for. Ideas, anyone?

Is there an easy, safe way to avoid static buildup in a charged environment?
posted by freshwater_pr0n to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
well, a metal cage that's grounded would take care of any localized fields / static problems. is that sort of along the lines of what you're looking for?
posted by sergeant sandwich at 11:55 PM on March 26, 2006

I guess you could make some kind of faraday cage to isolate electrical fields - no idea if this could work. The only other thunder phobic dogs I know of also hide in the bathroom so you might be onto something with your theory.

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posted by rongorongo at 12:09 AM on March 27, 2006

Completely useless anecdote: My dog also freaks out and heads for the bathroom, if it's available. If not, under any desk or table he runs towards.

Actually, he tiptoes. We call him "storm dog."
posted by disillusioned at 12:11 AM on March 27, 2006

There is a narrow question and a broad question here.

Is there an easy, safe way to avoid static buildup in a charged environment?

Yes, people who work around sensitive electrical equipment are quite experienced in this area. The Electrostatic Discharge Association can tell you all about it -- how to control the environment and perhaps, if you really want to go overboard, how to rig a static-plagued dog with anti-static gear.

But the broader question is "what should I do about doggies who are scared shitless of thunderstorms?"
I've seen skittish dogs freaking out during fireworks nights (New Year's Eve, etc.) in the same way they freak out during thunderstorms. I think you should concentrate on the noise and the flashes. Electricity may have nothing to do with it at all, or or it may be scary only in that it warns dogs of impending thunder that will come regardless of household grounding. Heading for the bathroom may mean heading for a small, quiet, cool, dark, safe room with small windows and solid fixtures in the middle of the home. You could end up spending a lot of money making your home safe for microelectronics and leave it just as scary for Fido.

DogsOnly offers a lot of sane advice.
posted by pracowity at 1:08 AM on March 27, 2006

I assume that the grounding plumbing pipes provide discharges the static.
That assumption is well worth testing out before you start spending money on building things.; it sounds questionable to me.

It's pretty likely that your bathtub isn't actually grounded. Plastic drainpipe is a pretty damn good insulator, as are the tiles that the taps are typically mounted in, as is the enamel coating on a typical steel tub.

I think it's at least as plausible that your freaked-out dog just finds the bathtub to be a comforting space to hole up in for physical reasons having nothing to do with electricity. Bathrooms are generally echoey places, and bathtub interiors doubly so; the doggy noises to thunder noises ratio in the bathtub is likely to be higher than just about anywhere else in the house.

Bathrooms are also damper than most other rooms. It's possible that doggy prefers his ozone tempered with a little water vapor. That, at least, is easy to test: get a pump-action misting bottle, spray it around inside the house when the dog is freaking and see if he calms down any.
posted by flabdablet at 3:25 AM on March 27, 2006

Yeah, I've always assumed our storm-scared dog headed for the tub to seek cover. I really doubt it's electrical.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:07 AM on March 27, 2006

I had a dog like this, my vet gave me valium for him. (I think it was valium, it was a few years ago.) I'd give him a tiny tiny dose before a thunderstorm would roll in, he'd still be nervous but wouldn't hide and drool and generally freak out when dosed up. Eventually he didn't really need the valium anymore, except for the first couple storms of the season.
posted by duckstab at 5:14 AM on March 27, 2006

Count yourself lucky. Thunderstorms loosen our dog's bowels wherever he is. It'd be nice if he would make it to tile.
posted by plinth at 5:52 AM on March 27, 2006

I wish I could remember which book I read it in, but there was (at least at some point) some confirmation that dogs are looking to ground themselves when they hide from storms in the bathtub or behind the toilet. Since dogs are only moderately good at physics, it might not actually help any, but it seems to make them feel better. Many, many dogs who otherwise have nothing to do with plumbing retreat in this same way.

My pet theory is that their instinct is to head for rock or earth, something that's going to provide both shelter and a ground, and our general lack of living room caves makes this problematic (though I wonder if anyone's got anecdotal evidence regarding empty fireplaces) so the porcelain and pipes will have to do.

I wonder if you could rig a collar with a dragging component to keep them grounded (sort of like the anti-stat wristbands for people + the chains that some trucks drag to discharge static), and if that would actually make them feel better. And if they could be prevented from chewing it off immediately, as my dog would do. I don't know if that would satisfy the need to retreat or not. It's awesome that you're trying, though.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:26 AM on March 27, 2006

Which room of the house are you supposed to go in if a storm gets really bad/dangerous?

Your dog just doesn't need to be told, that's all.
posted by baphomet at 6:52 AM on March 27, 2006

I have read several comments by vets on this topic. They all seem to say that the best way to remove the thunderstorm phobia is that you just ignore the storms. The opinion seem to say that this fear usually comes from their owners acting like the storms are something they should be afraid of when they are puppies.
posted by slavlin at 8:33 AM on March 27, 2006

I always assumed dogs went there during trouble (thunder, lightning, fireworks, earthquake, whatever) because... nothing moves in there. Simple as that. No tables or chairs or things falling off shelves.

That is if your bathroom is like mine: sink fastened to wall, tub fastened to floor and wall... the only thing that can fall is inside a medicine cabinet and therefore invisible to the dog.
posted by dobbs at 8:37 AM on March 27, 2006

Slavlin, most general practice vets have limited knowledge of animal behavior and are notorious for giving out terrible advice on the subject. I know some wonderful exceptions, but they're very big on blaming the owner.

T-storm phobia develops in adulthood and is much more common in some breeds. It's no bn coincidence that the best FAQ on the internet, which rongorongo linked to, is from a Golden Retriever rescue org.

Everything everyone has said about bathrooms is probably right. Dogs are geniuses when it comes to seeking out comfort, and bathrooms are great for them on many levels.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 10:40 AM on March 27, 2006

I second the 'learned behaviour' theory for at least some dogs, and it doesn't even need to be learnt from humans.

A few years back a dog-owning friend dogsat another dog that was petrified of fireworks - on Guy Fawkes night (major firework night in the UK). Up until that point the friends dog, a 5 year old bitch, had never been remotely bothered by fireworks.

As the night progressed and the canine guest got progressively more and more freaked out (chewing itself, then vomiting and finally defecating uncontrollably) - so my friend's dog started to exhibit the same behaviour until the pair of them were as bad as each other.

Friend's dog remains petrified of them to this day.
posted by barnsoir at 10:46 AM on March 27, 2006

I agree that it's a learned behavior. My family's German shepherd never took any notice of thunderstorms. Then we put her in a (good) kennel for a few days, and there was a thunderstorm one night while we were away. The next thunderstorm after we picked her up, she flipped out and had to sit under our chairs. In case you were wondering, it's kind of hard for an eighty-pound German shepherd to fit under your chair. But she was determined.

She now heads not for the bathroom, but for the basement. And she'd really like us down there with her, preferably on chairs she can wedge herself underneath.

Our vet prescribed doggy Valium, but her stomach couldn't handle it. Still, that may be your best bet if you're trying to acclimatize your dog.
posted by booksandlibretti at 12:40 PM on March 27, 2006

Keep in mind that the vets' accusation that dog owners create thunderstorm phobia by "coddling" puppies is much different than the above two stories.

Dogs do mimic the behavior of other dogs. Allelomimetic, or contagious, behavior is often seen in animal shelters. When one dog goes "kennel mad," spinning, barking and self-injuring, other dogs who have never exhibited such behaviors will join in. Contagious thunderstorm phobias work on the same principle.

If an owner were to run around screaming, soiling himself and looking for a dark closet in which to hide, then yes, he probably would create a thunderstorm-phobic dog. However, most of the clients who come to me are in good mental health themselves, so I suspect that none of them are doing this.

I have two dogs. One was severely thunderstorm-phobic when I adopted him; the other was not. Before I desensized the first dog to thunderstorms, the second dog saw his pack mate freaking out. Because the second dog just isn't wired to be thunderstorm phobic, the first dog's behavior left no impression on him.

T-storm phobia is a complex issue that is often comorbid with several other behavior problems. It's a huge oversimplification to accuse an owner of having caused it.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 1:20 PM on March 27, 2006

I was not saying that the owner was always the problem. What I am saying is that, showing the dog that a storm should be something to fear will teach them that they should be afraid. An owner who hugs the little puppy every time the big bad boom happens will wind up with one that is terrified of this thing they have had to be protected from.

It is simply part of the inborn training that has kept animals alive. If your parent fears it, you should too. In this case, the person that is raising you.
posted by slavlin at 10:28 PM on March 27, 2006

I doubt that the dog's phobia has anything to do with
electrical charge or ozone. I've had 2 dogs that were phobic
of fireworks/gunshots/thunder, or any other sharp crack.
A collie and a cattle dog. The problem disappeared in both
dogs (I owned them sequentially) when they deaf (no dog
dies young at my house).

I opine that the bathtub is the best place to "hide" in the
house. If you had a dry porch they could get under, I bet
they would be there instead.

Check your electrical charge theory by walking them under
a high voltage transmission line. The voltage gradient in
the air under one of those big ones can run 4000
volts/foot (I have personally held a fluorescent tube that
popped on while walking beneath one). Make sure that
it is a cool, dry day when you do it (so that there is no
audible corona discharge), and make sure that you don't
consciously or unconsciously cue the dog.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:50 AM on March 28, 2006

A look at mitochondrial DNA points to northern Chinese steppe wolf ancestry for dogs. Lightning on the steppes is a terrible, terrible thing, not for any danger from electricity, but because of fire.
I think dogs who have the sort of extreme fear of thunder and fireworks described by freshwater_pr0n, and other posters in this thread, are displaying an instinct bred into them by millenia of harsh selection on these vast, fire-swept expanses.
But, if you're willing to accept this view for a moment, don't the stories here seem to show something more? Don't they appear to show an instinct involving not just simple fear, but containing specific fire-evading strategies? First, they run if they can-- and they are truly frantic to escape if confined. If they cannot run, they hide in the basement or under the furniture, which I think we may reasonably equate to a den in the wild, or they climb into the bathtub, which I would compare to a streambed or pond in their original habitat.
posted by jamjam at 5:40 PM on April 25, 2006

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