Do you remember experiencing thunderstorms as a young child? The intensity of the storm and how close it was to you probably had some impact on how you felt about the thunder. A little bit of distant thunder is much less frightening than a raging summer storm traveling right through your neighborhood.
There’s also a good chance that the attitude of the adult nearest you during the storm had an effect on how you felt about the experience. Parents of very small children love to tell stories about angels bowling in the heavens in an effort to reduce the scariness of the noise. Other parents try to explain the science behind air masses colliding to give kids a greater understanding of what’s happening. Unfortunately, neither of those strategies helps with dogs. But keeping our voices light and cheerful, pairing good things with the booming of thunder, and encouraging play or relaxation can all be beneficial.
Which dogs will develop fear of thunderstorms? It would be superb if we could predict that accurately! Many puppies and young adult dogs show absolutely no concern for lightning or the resulting sound of thunder. Typically, many dogs who develop thunderstorm fears show the first serious signs around age six (give or take a year or two). Veterinary behaviorists don’t know why, but they suspect that dogs eventually learn to identify changes in atmospheric pressure that happen before storms. So if an adult dog becomes fearful of storms, he may begin to show stress progressively earlier with each storm.
For this reason, it is a good idea to start working with your dog early to prevent problems. If you live in a region of the country that has strong storms, he will be exposed to them in due time. However, you can start early with managed exposure to sounds similar to thunderstorms and make sure that your dog has a good time during that exposure. That’s something you cannot easily do once storm season arrives in full force.
An Internet search for “thunderstorm recording” will provide you with lots of free sources for sound. Choose one that is not too intense but that includes the sound of rain as well as some rumbling. Start playing it at a low volume while you and your dog engage in an enjoyable activity, like training, play, or mealtime. One great option to keep him occupied and happy when playing the recording is to give him a long-lasting edible bone.
The goal is to play the sounds at a volume that your dog can hear but not loud enough to be of concern. Keeping the sound below a level that upsets your dog will allow him to become acclimated to the noise. Pair it with a fun activity like playing fetch or tug, or with an edible bone, to help him develop a pleasant association between the sound and fun. Over time, increase the volume of the sound, being careful to do so slowly. Short sessions of four or five minutes at a time are plenty.
Be proactive about doing this kind of exposure for a dog who is relocating from a geographical area with few storms to one where many occur.
What if you have a dog who is already showing signs of thunderstorm anxiety? Whenever a dog shows a new behavior, consultingwith your veterinarian is a wise step. The vet can help you rule out medical issues that might be contributing in some way. She can also discuss the option of using an anti-anxiety medication when storms are predicted.
For milder cases, some veterinarians recommend certain over-the-counter drugs to reduce a dog’s reaction to storms. The common antihistamine diphenhydramine can be helpful because it causes a bit of drowsiness, but check with your veterinarian for proper dosage, side effects, and any warnings for your dog.
Some dogs become so upset during storms that they attempt to break out of crates, destroy furnishings, or run away from their homes. While at the vet clinic, ask the vet to either microchip your pet or check to be sure that the existing microchip is still in place and locatable by the scanner most clinics have on hand. Better safe than sorry.
Body Language and Mood
To help your dog learn to “ride out the storm” with less stress, continue normal activities and try not to communicate worry. Our dogs are very attuned to our body language and may be able to sense our moods through chemical changes in our bodies. By remaining calm, you refrain from signaling to your dog that there is something to be concerned about.
Several brands of body wraps for dogs can potentially relieve anxiety during storms and other stressful situations. The concept is similar to swaddling a child. The wraps are made of various types of stretchy fabric, which provide some compression to the dog’s torso. Apparently, the “snuggly” attributes of the apparatus either create pleasant feelings or provide enough tactile input to counterbalance the input from the auditory system. While body wraps don’t affect every dog in the same way, many dogs get significant relief during thunderstorms from the sensation.
Safe Hiding Places
Some dogs look for a safe place to wait out a storm. Many crawl under beds or behind couches, get into the crate, or seek out a dark, hidden spot in a closet. Some dogs have a habit of hiding behind toilets or climbing into bathtubs; it’s possible that these hard surfaces or the proximity to plumbing and water reduces feelings of static electricity. Whatever the mechanism, your dog will appreciate the ability to choose his refuge while the thunder occurs. As long as there is no danger to him, try to accommodate his preference.
Janet Velenovsky, CPDT-KA, CDBC, ACCBC, KPA CTP, is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant, and a Certified Training Partner from the Karen Pryor Academy. She led the Training & Behavior Education Department for Premier Pet Products and is the Chair of the Working Animals division of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Janet and Kaizen, her first Golden Retriever, visited Katrina-ravaged Louisiana in December 2005 as members of Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response (www.hopeaacr.org). She now makes therapy visits with Teddy, Piper, Oscar, and Keiko, all registered with Therapy Dogs, Inc.