Dog Afraid of Thunder? Here's Help!

A friend of mine posed a question to me the other day concerning his Labrador, Candie, who is deathly afraid of thunderstorms. When the rain begins, she starts shivering. When the thunder booms, she tries crawling under the bed—which is quite an effort for a fully grown lab! Candie's recent hiding place is in the shower stall. Why are some dogs deathly afraid of thunderstorms and why do they hide in enclosed places? The most important question, however, is what can be done to possibly cure dogs of this terrible fear?

Not An Uncommon Behavior
It's not uncommon for dogs to react to storms by panting and pacing, clinging onto their owners, and hiding in places you think they couldn't possibly fit into but somehow do! In showers, behind toilets, and closets are all popular hiding places for frightened dogs. In severe cases, dogs have been known to claw through drywall, chew carpets, and even crash through windows! Thunderstorm phobia is quite real and should be taken very seriously, especially since it tends to get worse over time. Matt Peuser, DVM, a veterinarian at Kansas' Olathe Animal Hospital, says dogs won't grow out of this phobia on their own and if nothing is done, the phobia will worsen as storms become more frequent during the season.

The Triggers
What triggers dogs to go ballistic during a thunderstorm? The combination of wind, lightning, thunder, barometric pressure changes, static electricity, and some low frequency rumbling remain unheard by human ears but, unfortunately, are sensed by our four legged friends. There is even a theory stating dogs can experience painful shocks from the static buildup before a storm! No wonder they go crazy!

Panic Manifestation
Usually, storm-related panic manifests from out of nowhere. Your dog may be ok on one stormy day, but go into full thunderstorm-panic mode the next! Some owners say, "last year he was fine, now he's a mess during a thunderstorm!" This is a very emotional experience for owners as well as dogs, as it's positively heart wrenching to watch your dog cowering in fear. Some dogs with thunderstorm phobia are also prone to panicking when they hear other loud noises such as gunshots, fireworks, and cars backfiring, while others solely fear storms.

Overcoming The Phobia
What can be done to help your dog overcome this phobia? Unfortunately there is no easy fix and unless your dog is only mildly affected, it may be a difficult phobia to treat. The good news is that there are a number of actions you can take to help reduce your dog's stress during the storm season. For example:

• Never console your pet when this fearful behavior surfaces. Owners make the mistake of catering to a whimpering or panicky dog which just encourages more of the same behavior. Don't reward a clingy dog. Instead, reward your dog all year round when calm behavior is being displayed.

• Distract your dog during a storm by offering its favorite toy, petting, or playing fetch. By doing this, you're replacing fear with something positive. If your dog calms down, reassure its behavior with a treat but only if your dog remains calm.

• Watch where your dog attempts to hide during a storm and, if possible, provide easy access to that area. It might be a crate, a basement, a bathroom, or an interior room where your dog can't see or hear what's happening outside. Our cockapoo loves his crate as this is his 'safe room' from a storm.

• When shopping with my wife the other day I noticed a number of products for panicky dogs that are called "pressure garments." These are usually snug fitting shirts and wraps designed to calm anxious dogs. The "Thundershirt" uses a method which is much like swaddling a baby while the metal fabric lined cape called "Storm Defender" claims protection from static shocks for dogs. However, please note that research testing garments such as these have not yet yielded statistically significant results, so exercise your best judgement before spending money on items like these.

• During the winter months you can try desensitizing your dog by playing a CD of thunderstorm recordings at low levels so as not to frighten your dog. Gradually increase the volume over the next few months to get your dog accustomed to thunder sounds, stopping only if he shows signs of anxiety and stress. Desensitization can have limited success because you can't take into account every aspect of thunderstorms that can frighten your dog such as static electricity or changes in barometric pressure.

• And last, ask your veterinarian for advice. Your vet may suggest medication (if needed) or have more ideas for behavior modification. (If your vet takes a holistic approach, natural supplements and remedies may also be suggested.) Not every dog will require medication for anti-anxiety, but the higher the state of anxiety, the more the medicine will benefit your dog. You may have to administer these meds all season long or give your dog the medicine when an impending storm is near. Combined with behavior modification and desensitization, medicine may be the way for your dog (and you) to become less stressed on the road to Calm-ville!

For more information, read this article on the Humane Society's website, and download this tip sheet from Paw-Rescue.org.

By Tom Matteo