Thunderstorm anxiety is a difficult, and often frightening, problem for dog parents to handle. A dog afraid of thunder can have a variety of reactions, from mild to extreme. Dogs may pant, whine, bark, hide, tremble, pace, spin, scratch and/or paw at windows and doors, and may become extremely destructive and panicked to the point of hurting themselves. I remember my own sense of horror when we were driving cross country from Los Angeles to Pennsylvania and my shepherd mix became extremely anxious during a thunderstorm in Arizona, to the point where my husband and I had to take turns staying in the car with him at night because we couldn’t keep him in the hotel due to his terrified barking. We never realized he, at six years of age, was thunder-phobic since he lived all his life in an area where there really are no storms. So, I can deeply sympathize with the trauma that other dog guardians can feel when they find their dog suffers from thunderstorm phobia.
Dogs that suffer from thunderstorm phobia are often also sensitive to other loud noises such as fireworks and gun shots1. Studies have also found that breed, age, sex and acquisition of the dog can increase the likelihood a dog will suffer from this condition. Female dogs and neutered males are more likely to be thunder phobic, as well was dogs that were rehomed2.
Reducing thunderstorm anxiety in dogs
One of the interesting findings of several researchers about thunderstorm phobia was that the percentage of dog guardians who sought help for the problem from behavior and veterinary professionals was quite small3. This may be due to pet guardians not being aware that there is help for this condition and/or lack of access to professionals. While thunderstorm phobia can be difficult to deal with, depending on the severity, there are still many things you can do to help your dog be more comfortable and modify his behavior over time.
The first step is to consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist, if there is one in your area. There are anti-anxiety medications that can be used to help your dog feel calmer during a storm. Another benefit to these is that they help a stressed dog to relax enough to concentrate on the behavior modification plan you put together. In my personal experience, pet guardians can be uncomfortable with the thought of using medication for anxiety on their dog, but, thunderstorm phobia can be a medical emergency if it’s severe enough. Even in its milder forms, it’s still a very unpleasant experience for the dog. Medication can make him more comfortable.
Thunderstorm anxiety tips for dogs
- “Make sure that you allow your dog access to safe spaces. Too often guardians will close the bathroom or closet or basement door which can cause a stressed dog to become even more anxious,” says Marjie Alonso, CDBC, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA, Executive Director of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Some dogs are calmed by staying in a place they can hide, such as a covered crate or inside a closet. If this makes your dog comfortable and he is not hurting himself, allowing him to find the place he feels safest can help reduce fear.
- Other dogs can be calmer when they are outside. My own shepherd mix was much less stressed outside during a thunderstorm and my husband spent much time playing ball with him in the yard, wearing a rain poncho to protect himself from the weather. Many dogs with storm phobia can sense other changes in the air, such as barometric pressure. For these dogs, it can help to put them in an area of the house that is more grounded to the electricity in the air, such as a bath tub or rubberized flooring.
- Masking the noise can also be helpful in keeping the dog calm. Using the sound of the TV or a radio can dampen the effect of the thunder. You don’t want to make them too loud since your dog is very likely sensitive to loud noises in general. Another option is closing the windows, turning up the air conditioner, or using white noise machines. There are several apps you can get on most smartphones that have white noise and other soothing sounds and these can work as well.
- Systematic desensitization is a form of behavior modification where you expose your dog to a stimulus that the dog finds scary in tiny amounts and pair this with something very reinforcing to the dog, such as a high value food treat (steak, chicken, etc.) or a beloved toy or brushing – every dog is different so you want to use something that your dog loves more than anything else. You should consult with a behavior professional before attempting such a protocol. This is only a quick summary and a professional can help you with recognizing your dog’s body language to make sure your timing and behavior plan is on point, as well as provide additional options for your dog.
- If your dog is not so stressed that you can get his focus, you can also try giving him something to do to take his mind off the storm. This could be doing some basic training exercises, teaching tricks, or using food-stuffed toys and puzzles. Just as with people, if the dog has a mental activity to focus on, it gives him less time to focus on what makes him afraid.
- Finally, many dogs have benefited from the use of a body wrap. Whether it’s a commercially produced product like the Thundershirt™ or using Ace™ bandages to wrap the dog following TTouch® methods. Again, from personal experience I can say my dog benefited greatly from the Thundershirt™ not only during thunderstorms but also during fireworks season.
If your dog suffers from thunder and noise phobia, finding qualified behavior help is highly recommended. Says Alonso, “I don’t think people even think to get help much of the time – these just think it’s just that ‘silly dog’ and don’t understand the severity of their dog’s stress level. Others simply don’t know that there is help available.” Visit the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the Animal Behavior Society, and the IAABC to find a professional near you.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.
- Storengen LM, Lingaas F. (2015) Noise sensitivity in 17 dog breeds: Prevalence, breed risk and correlation with fear in other situations. Appl An Behav Sci. In press.
- Storengen LM, Lingaas F. 2015; Blackwell EJ, Bradshaw JWS, Casey RA. 2013 Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behavior. Appl An Behav Sci 145(1-2) 15-25.; Mengoli M, Tancini V. et al. 2012. Survey on predisposing factors to canine thunderstorm phobia. Veterinaria. 26(4) 27-33.
- Blackwell EJ, Bradshaw JWS, Casey RA. 2013; Mengoli M, Tancini V. 2012
Dogs and Thunderstorm Phobia
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Thunderstorm phobia or anxiety in dogs is a fairly common and very real problem for many dogs. Dogs with thunderstorm phobia may become extremely frantic and overwhelmed with fear during storms. Astraphobia is the technical term for this: the fear of thunder and lightning. Owners who see their dogs experiencing this fear usually feel helpless and frustrated. Find out what causes thunderstorm phobia in dogs and learn how to manage it for the sake of your dog and your own peace of mind.
How to Calm a Dog During a Storm
So how can your dog handle thunderstorm phobia? Here are couple of things you can try to make your dog calmer during loud thunder.
1. Take action at an early stage
The fearful behavior in dogs does progress if not handled early enough. Every time thunder strikes it may result to more fear in your dog.
Take action as soon as this behavior starts building up. This means you need to be available at that time when there is thunder.
Leaving your dog alone will cause her to be more fearful.
2. Provide a safe place for your dog
Identify the place your dog escapes to when he is running away from the loud sound of thunder.
This could be under the table, in the basement of your house, under your bed or even in the bathroom. Remember hiding is one of the ways dog defend themselves.
Create and allow that specific place freely accessible by your dog. Your dog will be free from any harm or injury whenever he will try to escape.
There are dogs that like hiding in crates. If yours is one of them, then move the crate to a place that is safe.
If you move the crate in your house then the door should be left open to make it easy for your dog to walk in and out freely.
Another possible way is by creating a place within your house that can shield your dog from the loud sound.
Let your dog hide in this place any time there is thunder. Of course, you will have to train and encourage her to get used to that place by feeding and giving her toys to play with from there.
Not all dogs will give in to this method of hiding since there are dogs that don’t escape into hiding when frightened.
3. Distract your dog from the fearful behavior
You should be on the watch to notice when your dog is beginning to develop anxiety and fear.
As soon as you see the signs of fear, engage her into something that excites her like playing with a toy. This will divert your dog’s attention into doing what you are engaging her into.
Although it might not be possible for you to continue keeping her attention on the game when the thunder starts, you would have delayed the fear.
However, you should not continue doing this when the dog isn’t giving in to your attention change since it will worsen the behavior.
Consoling a fearful dog only encourages its fearful behavior to get worse. You should not, therefore, reward your dog when it expresses such a behavior.
Train and encourage your dog to always follow your commands.
4. Desensitize your dog
This is one way by which you can successfully do away with the fears in your dog.
It involves playing a CD of thunder sound recordings to your dog in the absence of any noise. Start with a reduced volume so as your dog won’t be frightened.
As time goes by, gradually increase the volume as you watch for any signs of fear and anxiety.
If she expresses any fear while the CD is on stop it and then start the next session at a volume that is comfortable for her. You can reward your dog with treats or something that she enjoys while doing this.
Do this repeatedly over time until your dog does not respond fearfully to the highest volume. This will help your dog learn to respond to thunder without fear and anxiety.
For desensitization to be successful, it should be done in the season when there is no thunder so that the dog will not encounter the actual sound. However, this process might also not work for all dogs.
5. Try using anxiety reducing attire
Anxious dogs may find comfort when they have attires such as the anxiety wrap, thunder shirt, and the storm defender cape.
However, this may not work with all dogs with fearful behavior.
6. Use natural remedies
There are herbal products that can induce calmness in your fearful dog. It is not an easy task finding these products.
Determining how effective they can be is also another challenge with these herbal products. You can try a number of such products to see if they can help with your dog.
It is important you discuss such products with your vet so that he can advise on any possible risks to your dog’s health.
7. Give your dog vigorous exercise
Give your dog a vigorous exercise on the day when thunder is likely to occur. This makes your dog expend a lot of energy as well as getting physically and mentally tired.
Your dog will have less energy to respond to the sound of thunder. Exercise helps relieve your dog from any stress, fear, and anxiety.
8. Have a calm and positive attitude
Like humans, dogs are social beings and they are able to be affected by their surroundings.
It is, therefore, important for you as a dog owner to have a calm attitude towards your dog. Expressing any fear or nervousness can result to increased fear in your dog.
Dogs are always aware of their owner’s attitude and state of mind.
9. Maintain good health and nutrition for your dog
If your dog has health problems, it may experience increased stress levels.
Increased stress in your dog will lead to anxiety among other conditions. It is important to feed your dog with a balanced diet to free him from any behavioral changes that may develop as a result.
Your vet can give you advice on what diet is good for your breed.
10. Seek the help of your Veterinarian
Medication can be used to relieve the anxiety and fear in your dog.
Actually, it is one of the best methods you can use for your dog. This is the reason why you should consult with your vet for him to examine your dog.
There are medications that you can give to your dog just before thunder occurs i.e. when expecting it while there are others that are you may be required to give throughout the period or season.
The mistake you can make is giving your dog medication that has not been prescribed by your vet. This can adversely affect the health of your dog.
Why are Dogs Afraid of Thunder?
The following is an excerpt from the Petfinder Blog.
Dr. Lauren Brickman writes a pet health and care column for Petside.com
Q: Why is my dog so afraid of thunder and how can I make him less scared?
A: Many dogs are afraid of thunder simply because they do not understand what it is. Dogs hear this loud noise and perceive it as something threatening.
Some dogs try to go under tables, in bathtubs, or in any other places that make them feel secure. It is ok to allow them to do this.
It is important, however, not to try to soothe your pet too much. Doing so can actually encourage his fear if he senses any insecurity in your voice.
During a thunderstorm, try to provide a background noise for your dog, such as TV or radio. This may help to somewhat drown out the noise of the thunder. You can also try to get your dog’s mind off the storm by playing with him.
There are some dogs that require sedation when there is a storm. Consult your veterinarian so that they can prescribe something to calm your dog during a storm.
Why Are Dogs Afraid Of Thunder?
If you own or have owned a dog at some point in your life, then it’s a safe assumption that you’ve probably had to help soothe your dog through a thunderstorm. Dogs are scared of thunder. While it’s a common fear amongst dogs – some breeds more frightened of it than others – there is no explanation for what makes them afraid of it. But we all know the common symptoms of this fear which can be anything from hiding, barking, whining, or anxiously pawing and scratching at doors. Depending on how scared they are, some dogs might even tinkle themselves. While we can’t make the thunder stop when it happens, we can help our dogs be less frightened with some simple tips and tricks.
One of the important things we need to remember is not to punish our dogs for being scared. It’s not their fault that thunder makes them anxious. And by getting mad at them or punishing them for acting out, you’d only be adding to their stress and anxiety. Punishing your dog can actually be counterproductive as it might even worsen the symptoms as they’ll then associate thunder (an already scary thing) with punishment (an additionally scary thing). And just like we shouldn’t punish our dogs for being scared, we shouldn’t over-cuddle them either. While we might want to hold them close, talk to them in baby talk, and give them all the treats to make them feel better, these behaviors of ours might actually do more harm than good. What we’re doing is essentially giving them positive reinforcement and telling them that anxious behavior during thunderstorms is making us happy and they should keep doing it.
The best thing that we can do for our dog is to build them a little thunder shelter – somewhere they can do to feel safe and secure when thunderstorms are raging outside. A covered dog crate could work well, or perhaps easy access to a safe space under the bed. Most of our dogs probably already have a space in our homes that they tend to gravitate to when they’re scared, so we can just make it extra comfy for them. Or if they have not yet chosen a location, we can provide them with a safe space. You can even leave them a few treats in their thunder shelter so that they feel emboldened to hide there during a thunderstorm.
While a safe space does help your dog feel better, it is not the solution to the whole problem. If you really want to treat the root of the problem you can try desensitization training. It’s a good idea to consult your vet before trying to desensitize your dog, as it should be done slowly and gradually. Getting your dog used to the sound of thunder isn’t an overnight process. It takes a lot of time of slow exposure to recorded thunder sounds played at a low volume and for very short bursts. As your dog becomes more and more used to it, you can slowly raise the volume and the time played. Again, all this takes time so you need to be very calm and very patient with your dog.