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Handling your Dog's Thunderstorm Phobia

It's heart wrenching to watch: even before the first clap of thunder, our Belgian Shepherd starts pacing, panting and even pawing us. At his worst, he will start whining and even shaking as this irrational panic seems to take hold.

Thunderstorm phobia is real and one of the most commons fears that affect dogs. The anxiety often gets worse throughout the season as storms become more frequent.

Veterinarians don't understand all the triggers but suspect some dogs are set off by some combination of the strong wind, thunder, flashes of lightning, barometric pressure changes, even the faraway rumbles preceding a storm that humans can't hear. If the deafening crack of a storm right overhead is uncomfortably loud for us, imagine how intense it must be for your dog with his super-sensitive hearing.

Finally, the build-up of static electricity can be uncomfortable or even painful. If a dog receives even a mild shock from such static, it will only serve to reinforce that storms are very bad things indeed the next time one rolls in.

Herding breeds, such as Border ColliesGerman Shepherds and Australian Cattle Dogs may be predisposed to the problem, according to an Internet survey by Tufts University researchers. 

Dogs with other fearful behaviours, such as separation anxiety, also seem more prone to panic. Some dogs with storm phobia are also frightened of other loud noises, such as fireworks or firecrackers whilst others are only afraid of storms.

Obviously, each dog is different in terms of the symptoms he or she may exhibit. 

Below are some other characteristic behaviours, listed in approximate order of increasing severity: 

  • Trembling or shaking 
  • Restlessness 
  • Drooling 
  • Dilated pupils
  • Seeking out humans – sitting close by, leaning or trying to climb on them
  • Barking, whining, or howling
  • Hiding in small places – under tables, behind chairs, in closets or bathrooms, in the bathtub
  • Destructiveness – chewing walls or furniture, clawing at curtains, “digging” at floors, scratching woodwork
  • Uncontrollable panic, inability to stay in one place 
  • Trying to escape – jumping through windows, digging out of yards, running away
So now that you know the signs, what can you do to help your beloved pooch?

#1. Predict the problem

When you compare your dog’s fear of thunder with other noises that may worry him, thunder is different and is reasonably predictable if you listen to weather forecasts or take a look outside!

The major problem with thunderstorms is that:

  • Your dog hears the thunder booms and lightning cracks
  • Your dog will see the ominous darkness before the storm
  • Your dog will feel the storm if he/she is left outside during a storm
  • And your dog will smell the approach of the storm which is why you dog is so able to predict the storm before you can.
Whenever possible, this means you need to predict the storm and take action BEFORE it hits. Above all remove your dog from your garden and place him or her in a safe sound-proof location.

#2. Be available for your dog

The worst problem is when your dog experiences a thunder fear when you are away from him or her. Your dog will be much more fearful if left alone during a thunderstorm.

Of course no one is home 24 hours a day but to the best extent possible, try to have at least one person present (family member or friend) to care for your dog whenever he must weather a storm.

#3. Remove your dog from your garden

Dogs left outside during a thunderstorm are much more seriously affected than dogs who are allowed inside.

Dogs left outside will attempt to escape from your yard or ‘inscape’ into your home. While the damage to your fences and your home can be extreme and costly, it is the damage your dog could do to himself that is dangerous – or deadly. The safest place for your dog during a storm is the most sound-proof area of your home.

#4. Provide a “Safe Spot” or Den

You know that thunder is noisy, looks scary, smells a lot and your dog will feel it more if outside. Many dogs seek out a small, out-of-the-way place on their own, and make a beeline for it as soon as a storm approaches. Often this is a bathroom, garage, walk-in wardrobe, underneath a table, or behind a sofa. 

Interestingly, some dogs seem to derive comfort from lying on or near porcelain surfaces, perhaps because they instinctively know it provides some protection from static electricity. Thus, inside a bathtub or curled around a toilet are common spots thunder phobic dogs will retreat to.

Rather than discourage this behaviour, do all you can to take advantage of it. Build on your dog’s natural instinct to find refuge by creating or enhancing this special safe haven. Think of it as a “storm bunker” or your dog’s very own “hidey hole.” Ideally, this area should be one without windows or with covered windows. 

A basement area is often ideal, since there are few if any windows and it stays cooler in the summer. Remove anything in the “safe spot” that could be hazardous if knocked over by a frightened pooch and make sure the area is not so small or confined that the dog could get trapped – thus ending up more scared, rather than less. 

Give the dog access to his “safe spot” at all times since a storm may easily come up while you are away. Stock the area with some soft blankets and a favourite toy or two…anything that will provide comfort and positive associations. Encourage your dog to use it whenever a storm is brewing and see if it makes any difference. 

Use Crates Cautiously

If your dog likes the security of a crate, consider putting one in the “safe spot” or another part of the house, but leave the door open so your dog can go in and out. In general, being confined in a crate with the door closed leads to heightened anxiety in a thunder phobic dog and an attempt to break out. 

As with any of these options, what works for one dog may not work for another, so you will need to determine your individual dog’s reaction to being crated.

#5. Use Masking Noise

Another way of reducing the noise is to mask it by adding other noises to the den or room your dog is in. You could try turning on a TV, fan, air conditioner, humidifier, radio or a CD that is specifically designed to reduce anxiety in dogs. Quite a few are available, such as:

#6. Use Pheromones

The products simulate the "appeasing" chemicals secreted by nursing mother dogs and induce a sense of comfort in dogs who breathe in. 

Dog pheromones can be very effective for calming noise-fearful dogs. 

The Adaptil plug-in diffuser (lasts approximately 30 days), collar and spray can all be effective but there are different strategies for each.  

#7. Practice calming strategies

When your dog is panicking, he or she needs to develop a calm demeanour. Thus, your job is to do whatever you need to do to create calmness.

Sometimes that DOES mean giving the dog comfort and attention when he is panicking. Many advise that ‘praising the fear’ by giving a panicking dog attention rewards the panic. This is nonsense. A panicking dog is not able to learn. He or she is far too ‘emotional’ to consider you may be rewarding his fear. 

ThunderShirt Dog Anxiety Vest - Classic Grey

You may be able to calm your dog by:

  • Using calming massage concentrating on the major muscle groups such as the cheek, forehead, neck and shoulder muscles.
  • Wrapping your dog’s body tightly with a towel or in a specially designed garment.
There are a number of brands to choose from and some of these wraps have anti-static linings; all are designed to be snug-fitting to give dogs a feeling of being swaddled that is comforting to them. 

#8. Change your dog’s attitude and perception

Behaviour modification is always worth a try, although its success is likely to depend on how severe your dog’s issues are with storms and how long he or she has been suffering with those issues. The two techniques generally employed are called counter conditioning and desensitisation – they are closely related and often used hand-in-hand. You may be familiar with them from other training situations as they have wide application for a number of canine behaviour challenges.

  • Counter conditioning involves changing your dog’s emotional reaction to a scary or unpleasant experience. Somewhere along the line, a thunder phobic dog has learnt to associate the sounds, sights, and sensations of a thunderstorm with something bad; they have become conditioned to think that storm = bad stuff. 
Thus, as a storm begins to brew, the dog’s anxiety automatically kicks in – it’s not something over which they have control. Our job is to reverse that association, i.e., to counter condition the dog to think that storm = good stuff. To do that, you pair the scary experience (the storm) with something the dog really likes or enjoys.

You can feed him super tasty treats, play a favourite game in the house, go for a car ride (if safe), or anything else that your dog typically enjoys. Partly you are distracting him from the storm, but more importantly you are teaching him that a storm predicts something fun or happy going on, not something scary. 

    • Desensitisation is the process of using repeated exposure to an object or experience to reduce or eliminate the fear associated with it. The fear-inducing object or experience must be presented in gradually increasing intensity over time, so the person or animal basically learns to “get used to it.“ 

    For thunderstorm phobia in dogs, you can try using one of several commercially available CDs that simulate the sounds of a storm. You start out playing them at very low levels and increase the level slowly, often pairing the sound of the CD with something pleasant for your dog (i.e., using counter conditioning jointly).

    Unfortunately, using desensitisation with thunderstorms is generally not as effective as it is with other kinds of fears, since the sound aspect of a storm is only one of the typical fear triggers. 
    Both counter conditioning and desensitisation often require a lot of patience and commitment on the part of the owner as they don’t work overnight. Still, they can be fairly effective for dogs with mild to moderate thunderstorm anxiety. For dogs with severe anxiety, they are far less likely to make any significant impact. Give them a try, but keep your expectations realistic.

    #9. Get a prescription medication when needed

    We’ve listed this at the end as most dog owners seem to consider prescription medication the “last resort” and want to try other suggested treatment or management options first. “I don’t want to drug my dog,” is a common concern voiced. 

    There is certainly merit to this position since any medication can have side effects and should be used judiciously. And yet, many dogs can attain very significant relief with prescription medication, greatly increasing not only their quality of life, but that of their human family members as well.

    In deciding whether to try a prescription medication with your dog, weigh the advantages and the disadvantages (always in consultation with a veterinarian) and look at the potential impact on that all-important quality of life measure we all want for our dogs.

    As with all of the techniques listed in this article, medication can be used completely on its own or (more commonly) in conjunction with other techniques as part of an overall management plan for helping your dog handle thunderstorms more effectively. 

    There are several medications currently used for thunderstorm phobia in dogs. Which is most appropriate for your dog will depend on his or her overall health, symptoms displayed, and severity of the problem. You will also want to take into consideration whether the medication needs to be given immediately preceding a storm (challenging if you are at work full-time) or can be given daily on a preventive basis. 

    While a veterinarian must prescribe medication for your dog, keep in mind that your vet may or may not have a lot of experience dealing with canine behaviour problems. Should you need the help of a professional, please also consider working with a qualified trainer or behaviour counsellor, who can guide you along the journey of helping reduce your dog’s thunderstorm anxiety.

    In many cases, a combination of the above techniques may be necessary to achieve any significant change in behaviour. As with so many aspects of canine care, patience, time and creativity are the key elements in helping your dog get past this frustrating problem.

    Please note that Australian Dog Lover does not necessarily endorse or recommend any of the commercial products listed in this article; they are listed for informational purposes only.
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