Fear of thunderstorms can be very common in dogs. Even before the storm cloud is on the horizon, an otherwise well-behaved dog may begin to pace, pant, cling to their owners or hide in the closet. In severe cases, they may even claw through drywall, chew carpets, or break through windows in their escalating panic. Unfortunately, this behavior tends to get worse as they age. Luckily we know a lot that can make life easier for thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their families.
Make storms an opportunity for rewards with your puppy to create positive associations. Games, treats and special activities are time well spent during storms. Special rewards for using the bathroom outside in the rain are a good idea. This method is best utilized at a young and impressionable age before your pet has developed a negative association with thunder storms.
Avoid "rewarding" fearful behavior. A natural response to a fearful pet is to display pity and praise when the dog is showing anxiety. Rewarding a behavior increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring more often, even when the individual is not conscious of being rewarded for it. Give rewards when the dog is behaving confidently, calmly, or happily. Work with your dog to develop ways to elicit these behaviors so that you can do so during storms and then reward. This is powerful training that will help you and your dog in all aspects of life.
Understand the causes for storm phobia in your pet. Obviously, the loud noise of thunder is scary to some dogs, but dogs can hear it at a much greater distance than humans can. Dogs also react to a variety of things including changes in barometric pressure or even house routine as the storm approaches. The important thing to realize is that most storm-phobic dogs eventually start reacting long before the sounds are loud and this behavior should be anticipated.
For the More Severe Cases
Veterinarians, veterinary behavior specialists, and dog families deal with thunderstorm fears as this problem is so common. Different things seem to help different dogs. Beyond the above tactics, here are some things you may decide to try:
1. A quiet, dark, sheltered refuge. Your dog may find the preferred spot independently, leaving you to simply make sure it stays consistently available to the dog. Chosen places dogs include basements, bathrooms (sometimes in the bathtub), closets, and crates that are kept in secluded parts of houses.
2. If your dog becomes frantic and as a result might suffer injury or do damage during a storm, you may need to develop a good means of confining the dog. Sometimes a secluded crate works, if the dog has been conditioned to rest calmly in a crate.
3. A product called Thundershirt has proven to be a helpful treatment for some of our patients with thunderstorm phobia. The gentle, constant pressure it provides acts as a "security blanket" that diminishes anxiety in some animals. This product is available in several pet retail stores in the Lexington area.
4. After consulting with our veterinary staff, we may offer to medicate your dog with an anti-anxiety drug or a sedative during storms. Due to the unpredictability of storms, it may not be possible to administer a sedative when it's needed. It is also important to realize that these medications alone do not provide a "cure" for thunder phobia. Instead, they will hopefully aid in the behavior modification tips mentioned above.
6. A behavior specialist consult can help you work out a behavior modification program to work on this problem. Such a program might include a tape of storm sound effects and training for your dog that you can use when the fears start. Learning more about communicating with your dog and modifying dog behavior in positive ways is always time well spent.
In conclusion, don't take thunderstorm phobia lightly, even if the problem seems minor in your dog. If handled poorly or ignored, it will get worse, and dogs have been known to jump through glass windows during storms. Some dogs will throw up when it storms. Many dogs have fled fenced yards. This can develop into a major problem that calls for handling at the first sign. Treat storms as a routine part of life, nothing to fear, and even perhaps an occasion for some special times. Do these things before your dog ever shows signs of phobia, and perhaps you'll never experience a serious case.