Don't Let Your Dog Fall Victim to his Fear of Thunderstorms

Fear of Thunderstorms;  Storm Phobia

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Many dogs stress over upcoming storms and exactly what it is that triggers these responses has not been adequately researched.

Bean, my 12-year-old Shih Tzu has a fear of thunderstorms.  To the casual observer, he maintains his calm, stoic demeanor, but a closer look reveals the puppy in him that is shaking and panting, heart racing, and pupils dilated. 

He is visibly disturbed even before I am aware that a storm is approaching.  He has a thunderstorm phobia (or storm phobia) and he is not alone. 

What causes a dog to have a fear of thunderstorms?

A fear becomes a phobia when it is out of proportion to the danger of actual threat.  A phobia is an exaggerated or irrational fear of something that causes a reaction in an individual—physically or emotionally. 

It might not be at all apparent what creates the fear in the first place.  Sometimes two or more events happen simultaneous that creates a fear that has no rational understanding. 

For example, years ago we were conducting a fire drill at a preschool I owned.  One little 3 year old happened to be standing in the gymnasium near the alarm bell when it went off.  After that, he was terrified to enter the gym and refused to go near the room.  He associated the loud alarm with the room that resulted in his fear.  Several years later, his mom reported that he still had apprehensions when he entered anything that resembled a gymnasium. 

Fear of Thunderstorms;  Storm Phobia

Your dog may have had a negative experience, which triggered his fears and anxiety just like the little boy in the daycare center. 

A close lightning strike, a severe storm that your dog experienced while home alone or even being caught outside when a storm struck could cause issues in some dogs. 

If the owner or another dog in the household is terrified of, storms that negative energy can be passed onto the dog.

Thunderstorms may be a little different in that there is a natural reason to have some healthy fear of them.  Lightning can strike, winds can bring trees down, and heavy rains can cause flash floods.  Unless the dog had an adverse experience associated with a storm, they are unlikely to understand what a storm is capable of doing.

There is likely a genetic component causing phobias to storms.  This is true for people and evidence for this is done through twin studies where two twins have the same phobia even though they were raised separately.  In the dog world, the herding breeds are more likely to show some signs of storm phobia.  In addition, dogs prone to separation anxiety also seem prone to storm phobias.  Sadly, phobias only seem to get worse rather than better over time. 

According to Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and founder and director of Tufts’ Animal Behavior Clinic, storm phobias are not a simple fear of loud noises. 

For example, a mounting storm also involves skies darkening, rain, and wind, changes in barometric pressure and static electric fields as well as different odors produced by lighteningDr. Dodman thinks that the dog receives a static electric shock during the storm that might be the trigger that causes the phobia. We know that static electricity fields do build up during storms.  Dodson thinks some animals especially long haired breeds could become statically charged. 

So, to say that your dog is afraid of thunder may be missing some of the components of the phobia.

How do you know your dog has a fear of thunderstorms?

Dogs show a wide range of reactions when they are fearful of storms.  These reactions can be physical, psychological, or physiological.

A Dog's Physical Reactions to Fear of Thunderstorms

  • Shaking
  • Trembling
  • Looking for a Place to Hide
  • Hiding under the bed or another dark place
  • Following or staying close to their owner
  • Wanting to be held
  • Pacing
  • Whining
  • Barking
  • Panting
  • Sweaty paw pads
  • Destructive behaviors including destroying property or trying to harm themselves
  • Aggression

A Dog's Psychological Response to fear of thunderstorms

People talk and can tell you they are afraid.  Dogs cannot, so one can only infer what is going through a dog’s head.

A Dog's Physiological Reaction to fear of thunderstorms

  • Increased heart rate,
  • Pupils dilated
  • Salivation/Drooling
  • Defecating or urinating in the house

Help Your Dog Overcome his Fear of Thunderstorms

Luckily, there are ways you can do to help your dog overcome or at least tolerate storms, but as of this writing, there does not seem to be a complete cure for Storm Phobias.  Here are the more common treatments that can help. All dogs respond differently, so if one method does not work, don't give up, just try another approach.

Behavioral Therapies

There are two techniques used to treat dogs with noise phobias:  Desensitization and counter-conditioning. Both have also been used to treat dogs with a fear of thunderstorms.

Desensitization methods involve reducing fears over a period of several weeks.  Similar to methods used in human therapies, a mild form of the feared object is paired with something positive; say a treat, petting, hugging, and attention.  In this case, a recording of thunderstorm sounds is played first at a low volume and then gradually increasing the volume until the dog becomes “desensitized” to the noise.

In counterconditioning, the dog is taught (conditioned) to show appropriate behavior in response to a specific stimulus or cue.  In the case of thunderstorms, the dog is given a special treat, a favorite toy, engaged in a prefered behavior, only during and before a storm.  The idea behind this therapy is that the dog associates the storm with something good.

Unfortunately, these behavioral techniques do not always work with all dogs. 

Desensitization, for example assumes that the dog is reacting to the loud sound of thunder and it is those piercing claps of thunder is what is causing the phobia. 

Storms are far more complex than that which we have already mentioned.

You will never be able to mimic all the effects of an actual storm to present it to the dog in gradual increments of severity. 

If you want to try it, you can purchase a CD with storm sounds directly from this page.  Click on the link to the left.

Music Therapy

Calming music has been shown to reduce stress in dogs.  Playing music during the storm might be helpful to reduce stress and even drown out some of the sound of thunder. 

I personally love the classical selections performed by Concert Pianist, Lisa Spector, and Joshua Leeds, sound researcher, music producer, and educator.  

Through a Dog’s Ear is a series of CDs that have psychoacoustically designed changes that have been clinically confirmed to relieve canine anxiety issues.  The music is good for any anxious dog and has calmed my dogs (and myself) during rain or shine.

Safe Place Therapy

Encourage your dog to go to a place where she feels safe.  For example, some dogs hide under the bed or in the bathtub.  A covered crate with a fluffy bed often helps a frightened dog, especially if this is the place she feels most secure.  If you use a crate, leave the door open she has free access in and out. You will want to observe her behavior and allow her access to the place she feels safe.  Confining her may cause the anxiety to worsen.

Sometimes finding a place that blocks out the storm helps.  A room without windows, the basement, or even a room where you can lower the blinds to block out lighting flashes will calm a stressed dog.  Do not turn off the lights.  Better still; turn all the lights on so it is more difficult to see any light coming through the shades from flashes of lightening.  You may also want to add some environmental sounds to block out the sound of thunder.  Calming music or even the humming sound of a fan will work with some dogs.

Clothing Therapy

Tight fitting garments help some dogs who have a fear of thunderstorms, and are worth a try.  Pressure garments, as they are sometimes called have the same calming effect that parents observe when they swaddle their infant.  The benefits of these garments have not been proven scientifically, but there is evidence that some may work better than a placebo according to Nicole Cottam, MS, behavior service coordinator at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.  There are several products on the market that work similarly

Thundershirts now come in a variety of colors and sizes, even the XXS which is often difficult to find.  We purchased one of the earliest shirts on the market and it has helped, but not as a stand alone therapy.

The “Calming Cap” by Premier has been reported to help some dogs and seems to work just like the “blinders” you see on horses.

Anxiety Wrap

Storm Defender http://www.stormdefender.com

Play Therapy

Not in the traditional sense, but a good old fashion play session can distract your dog especially when the storm is just beginning before your dog is showing an all-out fear reaction.  Play fetch or other favorite game. 

Work on a little training with plenty of treats. Practice basic commands or if you have taught your dog to do a trick or two, such as "Shake" or "High Five" work on these.  This would not be the best time to introduce a new command though, so keep it simple.

If your dog loves grooming, this might be a good time for a gentle brushing and massage to get her in a more relaxed state.  Ttouch is a type of massage treatment and has been shown to work with dogs that are fearful, stressed, or anxious.  Ttouch at www.ttouch.com

As the storm progresses, it may not be possible to ward off all the fear reaction, but it is worth a try.

Natural Remedies

Pheromone Therapy: Some people have had success with using Dog Appeasing Pheromone or DAP, an artificial replicate of the pheromone produced between the mammary glands of a lactating bitch.

You can purchase it for dogs or cats and it comes in either a diffuser or spray.  The diffuser is good if you work and know that a storm is approaching. 

Plug it in and it works immediately.  It is undetectable to humans.

Herbal Medicines

Skullcap
According to CJ Puotinen, author of Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care, Skullcap is a sedative, tonic herb with antispasmodic properties, which are used to control epilepsy in dogs, but for dogs with sensitivities to static electricity, it might help. 

Flower essences:  Back’s Rescue Remedy:

Edward Back was an English Physician and homeopath.  His most famous recipes work especially well in pets that are anxious or fearful and are now manufactured by different companies.  Three products include  Rescue Remedy Calming Essence, and Five Flower Formula. Any of these can be used to calm an anxious canine. 

It is fairly inexpensive and easy to give:  just squirt a few drops onto the dog’s tongue or gums. 

This solution has worked well for me personally and helps good old Bean ride out any storm. 

Conventional Medication Therapy

If behavioral or homeopathic remedies do not work, consult your veterinarian.  There are medications that can be prescribed to reduce the anxiety and calm the dog during severe storms. 

Current medications that can be used include tricyclic antidepressants (ex. Elavil), anti-anxiety medications (ex. Xanax), sedatives, (ex. Valium) selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, (ex. Prozac), Beta Blocker (ex. Inderal), and tranquilizers (acepromazine).  Some drugs that are currently being prescribed to dogs with a fear of thunderstorms include

  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Amitriptyline (Elavil)
  • Buspirone (Buspar)
  • Clomipramine (Clomicalm)
  • Clorazepate (Tranxene)
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • Inderal
  • Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Acepromazine (Promace)
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)

Consult your veterinarian for advice

Your Take Away

  • Your dog is not bad or disobedient during a storm, he is fearful, stressed and in a high state of panic. Do not take his fear of thunderstorms lightly.  He is truly afraid.
  • Not all of these techniques help all dogs, but with patience, you are likely to find one that will help your small dog. Helping a dog who has a fear of thunderstorms may require more than one approach or a combination of several.
  • The best thing you can do for your dog is to be calm, gentle, and patient.  You are the best person to get your dog through the storm so quiet petting will help both of you weather the storm.  When your dog realizes that storms mean a little extra TLC, his anxiety may be less during the next storm.

Fear of Thunderstorms:  Further Reading Recommendations

Dodman, Dr. Nicholas. The Dog Who Loved Too Much: Tales, Treatments and the Psychology of Dogs New York: Bantam, 1996.
Dodman, Dr. Nicholas. Dogs Behaving Badly: An A-Z Guide to Understanding and Curing Behavorial Problems in Dogs New York: Bantam, 1999.
Tellington-Jones, Linda Getting in TTouch with Your Dog: A Gentle Approach to Influencing Behavior, Health, and Performance Revised in 2012.

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