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Overcoming Storm Phobia in Dogs



"As we come into storm season in Sydney, I’m excited because I love afternoon storms." shares Dr. Katie Hankins from Savvy Pets Behavioural Vets

My poor dog Elfie, does not share this love. Like many dogs, she has storm phobia. This is a very real condition and attention needs to be given as these poor pups are truly distressed.

Storm phobia is a true phobia – it is an irrational fear, although we can all see how this starts with a logical self-preservation instinct. We do not know exactly why some dogs will suffer from storm phobia while others do not. 

I have two Terrier sisters, Binkie and Elfie – Binkie has no problem at all with storms, Elfie is phobic. We do know that there is a genetic predisposition

However, having the genetic predisposition does not guarantee that your dog will be storm phobic, but it does increase the chances

There are definitely environmental factors, such as exposure to storms with property damage. There are some cases where an aversive event, such as a nasty storm, when a dog is left home alone, has actually triggered separation related problems, such as separation anxiety



And there are other dogs mistakenly believed to have separation anxiety, when they have summer storm phobia – they don’t want to be left alone as they are anticipating a possible storm.

Signs of Storm Phobia

It is really important to remember that these dogs are not in control of their feelings or actions in response to the storm. In people this would be called a panic attack.

Signs you might see include:
  • Panting
  • Pacing 
  • Hiding 
  • Salivating 
  • Dilated Pupils 
  • Vocalising – whining, howling, barking 
  • Escape behaviour 
  • Digging 
  • Shaking 
  • Body tension 
  • Licking and yawning 
  • Freezing in one position 
And while some of these signs may look more dramatic than others, we can not tell which dog has the most severe phobia from these signs as we can’t ask dogs to rate how they feel. 

To us the dog that is barking and digging at a door appears more distressed than the dog curled in a ball shaking but we do not know what is in their head. We need to take all these cases seriously. Dogs can also vary in their recovery. 



Some dogs will be okay after the storm has finished. Others anticipate the next storm, especially if they are daily, and will suffer anxiety for the whole season.

Every dog owner should know their dog’s body language. In all behavioural problems, much could be avoided if we understood this. Our dogs do talk to us but they use body language and I find people are really not that great at “speaking dog.” 

I highly recommend watching the video “Dog Body Language 101” (member-only access) on the website Fear Free Happy Homes for a body language refresher. Early signs of storm anxiety would include licking, yawning, shaking off and tension

Once their stress is over threshold they may pace, vocalise, hide, freeze in a position, shake or salivate or even toilet inside the house or be destructive. 


If this exposure to the dreaded storm continues long-term, some dogs will become phobic to storm precursors, such as wind – then we have a dog that will be show the same signs when it is windy or even cloudy, even if a storm is unlikely.

How can we help our storm phobic dogs?

#1. Management

Our aim is to manage our dog’s environment so the intensity of the storm is below their threshold – so at a level they can handle. This can be easier said than done and varies for each dog. We need to find the right mixture of management tools for each dog and they can vary with time.

a) Mask the noise:


✔️ We can use white noise, brown noise or pink noise – experiment with what noise calms your dog. Spotify is great for finding these noises.

✔️ Music – classical music is calming for dogs, especially Bach (no pun intended!). 
Through a Dog’s Ears is a compilation of music all designed to be calming that can be found on Spotify.

✔️ TV background noise

✔️ Air conditioning noise

b) Pull curtains and blinds to reduce the noise and stop lightning flashes

c) Provide a protected space where your dog can choose to go, such as:


Ford Europe's Noise-Cancelling Kennel
✔️ A covered crate (with door open); Elfie has a pen with bedding that is her safe storm space

✔️ Under the bed, with blankets pulled over the edges

✔️ Chairs or table covered with a blanket to create a fort

✔️ Laundries, cupboards, wardrobes – watch where your dog feels most protected

✔️ Noise cancelling dog houses – there are even dog houses designed to provide complete silence

And remember, this is your dog’s choice to go to their protected area. It will not work if it is an area we are forcing them to be in, such as locking them in a crate they don’t like.

d) Stay with them. Dogs are social animals, your calm presence will make them feel more at ease.

e) Comfort them – yes, you can provide support and comfort. Your dog is in a state of panic. Providing love and comfort will not reinforce their panic, it will however help them to recover.

f) Adaptil 

Mother dogs produce a pheromone that they produce when they breastfeed their pups. It is designed to promote calm and a sense of wellbeing. 

Adaptil is the synthetic version and can be used to help decrease stress and anxiety. Adaptil comes as a collar, diffuser and as a spray. 

In storm season a collar or diffuser is a great addition to our management tools. 


g) Thundershirts

Thundershirts work on a similar principle to swaddling a baby. We wrap them so they feel protected. 

Many dogs feel less anxious in Thundershirts and there is even a patch to spray Adaptil spray on your Thundershirt.

h) Choice but guidance

Watch what your dog wants to do to calm themselves. They may want to curl up in a ball at the back of the linen closet and that is okay. 


However, if they are pacing you may want to pop a lead on and see if they will sit next to you for a pat. Be a good observer of their body language

i) Food test

At the height of a panic attack your dog will not eat. It is a great idea to put a plate out with some “special” well loved food. 

It is likely they will start to eat this once they start to relax. This gives us information on whether our management is working, and whether we are keeping our dogs under threshold. It is also very useful in training.

#2. Training

I would recommend getting professional help training dogs with thunderstorm phobias. The concepts are relatively easy, but the application can become confused.

Desensitisation – we want to:

✔️ Expose the dog to the thunderstorm noise, such as a Youtube or Spotify recording, at a level that they notice but are able to handle, 

✔️ To work in very short time spans.

✔️ Very gradually we increase the intensity – always watching for any signs of stress. 

Counterconditioning – we usually use a super special treat food for this, but it could be a toy or affection.

We pair the event (storm noise) with something the dog truly loves. Noise then treat – so the noise comes to predict a fantastic treat and becomes more emotionally positive. We must get the order correct. If we use treat then noise, the treat will start predicting the dreaded noise.

Both procedures are normally combined and can we very effective.

#3. Medication

The correct medication is a brilliant addition to our arsenal against storm phobia. But some medications that do get used are a very poor choice.

A vet with extra behaviour studies will be able to help you find the medication that is most effective for your dog. Some medications not only decrease the stress of the thunderstorm but stop memories being stored! The same drugs are used for combat soldiers that are fighting to decrease the chance of post traumatic stress syndrome.

A word of caution: 

Acepromazine or ACE pills (small yellow pills) should not be used for storm phobic dogs. This medication will stop the dog being able to move their body which may make the medication look effective – they aren’t pacing, barking or digging. 

But, their mind is still active – they still know the storm is going on, they are still terrified, they just can’t move. So ACE has been likened to a chemical straight jacket and will make future storms even more terrifying. We don’t live in the dark ages and we do not need to use this drug anymore.

It is unfortunate that some dogs suffer storm phobia, but it is treatable and all dogs deserve to live their best life. Please consult a behaviour vet or dog behaviour consultant to get help if your dog suffers from storm phobia.

written by Dr. Katie Hankins, October 2020 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).

About the Writer:

Dr Katie Hankins with her Terriers: 
storm phobic Elfie (front) & Blinkie (behind)
Dr Katie Hankins graduated from The University of Sydney in 1994 and started working as a small animal vet. She then graduated with a Masters in Small Animal Medicine and Surgery from Murdoch University. Always up for a challenge, she then started working in a referral Emergency Hospital. 

Since making the move back to general practice she has seen a huge increase in behaviour issues impacting our pets everyday welfare and affecting the relationships in families. 

She is now an IAABC internationally accredited Certified Dog Behaviour Consultant, Fear Free Certified Professional Level 3, while studying a Diploma of Animal Behaviour Science and Technology and is enrolled to perform Membership exams (Covid delay).

And she loves helping pets and their families sort out the problems and build great relationships.

She now runs her behavioural practice, Savvy Pets Behavioural Pets, and can be contacted at www.savvyvets.org or follow on Facebook at www.facebook.com/savvypets.org 
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