Thunderstorm Phobia

Stacy contacted me in great concern. Her new rescue, Markie, had kept her up all night as a thunder storm rolled through her area. Stacy was tired, but she was more concerned over her new dog’s intense fear during the storm. Markie trembled and whined, and she paced. Hiding under the bed, pacing more, and hiding in the closet, paced again, and then jumping on the bed and continued to pace until she jumped off and started the whole pacing and hiding pattern again. Each time a thunder clap sounded, Markie barked, as if warning off an imposing daemon. No matter what Stacy did to try to comfort her much loved companion, Markie just could not find comfort and a sense of security with the storm. Stacy new that Markie had some fear of thunderstorms as the foster person from the rescue mentioned it at the adoption. She just hadn’t realized how badly Markie suffered until this first storm came through.

For many dogs, and even young puppies, thunderstorms are a cause for real concern. Thunderstorm Phobia (Anxiety/Fear) is a common concern for dogs. Nothing is worse for the owners of these dogs than watching a loved companion suffer during a thunderstorm.

Helping anxious dogs in thunderstormsCauses of Thunderstorm Phobia: Although much scientific study has been, and continues to be done on the causes of thunderstorm anxiety/phobia there is still so much we need to learn about the specific causes. The Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association printed a survey in 2001 of dog owners with thunder-phobic dogs and found some interesting results. Some breeds appear to be more prevalent among thunder-phobic dogs such as herding dogs and hounds. Rescued dogs had a higher incidence of thunder phobia than the rest of the dog population surveyed, also.

What is also known is that trying to comfort a fearful dog will not reinforce the fear. You cannot reinforce an emotional state. Leaving a frightened dog to suffer is no different than leaving a frightened child (or adult) to suffer. Please do not abandon your dog in a time of fear. This can only make things worse. Get through the concerning moment and then set a plan on how to teach emotional and behavioral stability in the face of the fearful event.

Signs of Thunderstorm Phobia: Signs that your dog is concerned about approaching or present thunderstorms can vary from dog to dog. Some dogs with thunderstorm phobia may only react to storms with thunder and/or lightning but can be fine with just a just rain.  Other dogs may react to thunder but not lightning flashes, and others may react to lightning in anticipation of the thunder boom. It is theorized that some dogs can sense changes in the air or barometric pressure prior to the actually rolling in.    

Dogs with thunderstorm phobia may display a variety of behaviors including:

 • Hiding under beds or furniture, or in closets, bathrooms, or other small spaces.

• Intense barking, whining, and/or howling

• Pacing

• Panting/Drooling

• Sweaty Paws

• Trembling/Shaking

• Destructive behavior directed at windows or outside doors in an attempt to escape the home, especially when their people are not home with them during a storm.

• Aggression  

The good news is that it is possible to change how a dog feels about storms.

Management for Thunder Phobic Dogs:

• If your dog has a “safe place” he/she finds comfort, such as under the bed or in a closet, let them be there during a storm as this can increase comfort and a sense of safety. Some dogs can find comfort being in a bathroom, next to the commode, or in the bath tub. This may be because the surface they are on cuts down on the electricity in the air. Other dogs may be found in the basement, next to pipes for the same reason. Either way, let your dog find their safe place.

• You may try using a Thundrshirt Anxiety Wrap which is a sort of “dog coat” that holds your dog firmly inside and can cause some dogs to become calmer, somewhat similar to the idea behind “bundling” crying babies. It is best to let your dog become familiar with this wrap when storms are not present. By taking the time to put it on your dog and feed treats or play, for short periods, along with gradually increasing the pressure, you can help your dog find comfort in this aid. Also, when using the Thundershirt during storms, it is best to put a Thundershirt on your dog before the storm actually starts. If you wait until your dog is already concerned your dog may be already too anxious to benefit from this aid.

• The “Calming Cap” by Premier has been found to be helpful and works along the same concept as the “blinders” you see on horses. Again, it is best to condition your dog to feeling comfortable wearing this aid before it is needed. It is also best, if using this aid during a thunderstorm it is best to put it on prior to your dog becoming concerned and anxious.

• Create Calmness. Having the drapes closed and lights on may diminish your dog’s sensitivity to lightning flashes. Having calm music such as classical music may be helpful, or a calm talk show on the radio or TV.

• Compete with the noise. I have found that using a good quality white noise machine can be helpful to muffle the sound of thunder. Also, placing floor or table fans so that they are pushing the air back towards windows or walls can help to muffle the thunder sounds.

• For some dogs providing distractions may help. This may be a play game, offering a special chew bone that only occurs during thunderstorms, or a food dispensing toy.

• Talking with your veterinarian about medication that can help relieve your dog’s anxiety and concerns during thunderstorms.

•If possible, be home with your dog during storms. Your presence can offer your dog a level of comfort and security that they may not have if you are not home with them.

• It’s okay to sit with you dog if they are needing your comfort. Forget what you may have been told “you are reinforcing your dog’s fear”. You are not! You cannot reinforce emotions, but you can start to teach calmer and more self-secured behavior pattern.

Rehabilitative Training for Thunderstorm Phobias:  

Classical Conditioning: Counter conditioning is an effective training methodology that can change a dog’s fear to a neutral non-concerning emotional state. By pairing a high-value food treat, or other highly coveted event, with the fear triggering event, counter conditioning applied properly, can work to change a fearful dogs reactivity to a concerning trigger, such as a flash of lightning or a clap of thunder, to a neutral, non-concerning state. By first changing the emotional state we can also change the correlating behaviors associated with the fear.

Systematic Desensitization: Systematic Desensitization is the process of exposing the fearful dogto a stimulus, such as lightning flashes or claps of thunder, beginning with increments of very low intensity that does not elicited a fearful response. Systematic desensitization is a structured plan involving a graduating process of exposing a fearful dog to a less intense version of the event s/he fears, in such a way that their fear isn’t triggered. By gradually building upon the intensity of the concerning trigger, in increments that the dog can remain calm and feel safe with, we can apply counter conditioning to change the emotional reactivity to that trigger.

*When properly applied, Counter Conditioning and Systematic Desensitization together in a rehabilitation training program, progress can be made in helping fearful dogs learn to feel safe and secure during storm.

Does your dog suffer from a fear of thunderstorms? Does your dog suffer from a fear of fireworks or have other sound sensitivities? There is help available that can teach your dog to be calm and self-secure in the presence of these events.

Contact me today to discuss your dog’s individual training needs.