Thunderphobia

It’s getting to be that time of year again, when those who have thunderphobic dogs watch the weather forecasts closely and hope they will get home in time before a storm starts. If you have a dog who panics during storms, you know that your pooch may salivate, tremble, pace, vocalize (whine or bark), frantically try to hide, and even panic and destroy things in an attempt to find their way to feeling safe. Some of these behaviors can start before the storm is overhead. It can be a very stressful thing to go through for the dog and their humans.

Thunderphobia in dogs is one of those behavior problems that has stumped us in terms of “curing” it. This may be because there are many factors in a storm that could trigger a fearful response, and each of these factors in turn becomes associated with others. The clap of thunder is preceded by a flash of lightening, which is accompanied by rain and wind, darkening skies, changes in barometric pressure and static electricity, and even things we can’t perceive but our dogs can. These things don’t phase some dogs a bit, yet others, in the same household, may hardly be able to cope. There is speculation that genetics may play the biggest role in this problem, but exactly how is not known.

Fortunately there are things you can do to help put your dog at ease. At the first hint you suspect your dog may not like storms (sometimes this is after months or years of storms having little effect on the dog), engage him in play like tug of war or tricks for treats. This can help nip the problem in the bud, since the storm will then be associated with feeling playful instead of worried. This problem tends to get worse each season, so don’t wait to help your dog.

If your dog already has a fearful response to storms, here are some things you can try that I know from first-hand experience have helped. No two dogs are alike, so be prepared for some trial and error. It’s best to get a referral for a qualified trainer or behaviorist from your veterinarian rather than winging it on your own, since a panicked dog can injure himself or others.

  • If your dog is only slightly uneasy, engage her in tricks with very high value food treats (like bits of real meat) before she has a chance to get too worried. Find-it games with her dinner are a great idea, too. The act of eating can really help calm a dog (and if she is too worried to eat, that is a sign she may be more tense than you thought).
  • When skies are clear and no storm is imminent, teach your dog to love her crate and feel happy and safe there. Then she can seek it out and use it as a calming hiding place when a storm comes. Crate Games is a wonderful DVD that will show you how.
  • Stuff cotton in each of your dog’s ears to muffle the sounds.
  • Use a baby gate to confine your dog to a small bathroom and run the fan on high. Pull down the window shade and turn on the light to minimize the lightening flash. A special edible chewy may help her enjoy this routine.
  • Try giving a few drops of Rescue Remedy (available at stores like Whole Foods) on the tongue about 20 minutes before the storm. It can’t hurt and might help. You can also spray your dog’s bedding with Comfort Zone Dog Appeasing Pheromone (D.A.P.) or just let them wear the D.A.P. collar during thunderstorm season.
  • Try an Anxiety Wrap, Thundershirt or use an ace bandage to snugly (not tightly) wrap you dog’s chest/front third of his body. The reason “swaddling” like this can work is not known, but it really helps some dogs stay calm.
  • Speak with your veterinarian about medication options. I am not a veterinarian, but those I’ve consulted with tell me the correct medication should not make your dog dopey or change his personality. In the past, sedatives were prescribed for thunderphobia, but many veterinarians now avoid this (because the dog felt just as afraid but was merely sedated) and instead choose anti-anxiety medications (like Xanax). There are short-acting anti-anxiety medications that can even be given the day of the storm before you leave for work. Some dogs build up a tolerance to them, but by then you have probably gone a long way to changing how they feel about storms.

Using storm CD’s to desensitize dogs with this problem yields mixed results. I think it has to do with the many other variables that are in play, and the fact that this systematic sound work must only be done out of thunderstorm season; most dog owners aren’t thinking about storms when the the skies are finally quiet, so the timing is off in terms of starting the process.

If you try some of these suggestions and they help your dog, please let me know. And if you have another suggestion that has helped your pooch, I hope you’ll share it and I will be sure to pass it on. In the meantime, I’m happy to say it looks like we are in for sunny skies this weekend.

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4 thoughts on “Thunderphobia

  1. Barbara, I am surprised you don’t list pure counter-conditioning as an option here. Be prepared with something incredibly appealing, preferably something the dog rarely or never gets. When the thunder happens, immediately feed it to the dog. Remove the source of the food as the thunder wanes. Reintroduce when thunder begins, etc. The storm cd’s you mention would work much better with counter-conditioning element, but whther one uses them or not, the cc element when thunder hits is where I would begin.

    1. Thanks for your suggestion, Michael! I mention counter-conditioning in several places above (though not by its technical term). However I don’t find by itself CC is effective enough unless the dog is only very slightly worried. With a dog only very slightly concerned, as you suggest it can be a terrific solution to change the dog’s emotional association with the storm, whether through play, food tidbits, or tricks.

      Your suggestion reminds me of a client dog who was over-the-moon crazy for tennis balls. But also afraid of storms. So the owner took out a tennis ball after the first signs of a storm occurred. Within a few weeks, the dog would feel the approaching storm, and instead of cowering would bring the ball to the owner to play. Pretty neat!

      Because we generally don’t know which element of the storm is frightening for any one dog, I recommend using more than one of these approaches at once. Hence my kitchen-sink list of things to try. And because thunderphobia can worsen so quickly, I’ve found it’s important to jump right in with several strategies at once. As the dog improves, each strategy can be eliminated, one at a time. Not very neat and clean scientifically-speaking, but very practical.

      The sound CD’s tend not to be as effective, whether used in a careful counter conditioning program or not. In fact, a dog can become sensitized to loud sounds if it’s not done correctly. But I did want to at least address their use since readers may encounter that suggestion elsewhere.

      Thanks for your comment and clear explanation of classical counter conditioning!

      1. Oh thank you, my pleasure!
        Edited to add: I moved one of the bulleted points to the top of the list in order to highlight it more strongly. Thanks for your emphasis on wishing to help change the dog’s emotional association with the storm.

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