Thunderstorm Phobias in Dogs

Colorado is famous for its daily thunderstorms. For many dogs, these storms can create stress and sometimes even panic. Why are dogs afraid of thunderstorms? A better question may be “why not?” Dogs can go for years having no fear of storms, then one day they hear a loud boom of thunder that scares them and everything changes. The dog suddenly has a negative association with the storm and that’s when the phobia begins. It’s just like any fear a person may have; of spiders, snakes, elevators or water. You have a negative experience – such as a spider bite, being trapped in an elevator, or being suddenly dunked under water – a negative emotional association is made, and voila – a phobia is born!

From that point on your dog starts to sense the precursors of a storm (dogs are very good at picking up precursors, especially to things that have a strong emotional association). First they begin to notice that lightning always happens right before the loud clap of thunder. Then the rain becomes a predictor of the lightning, and soon the dog has figured out that wind, temperature change and barometric pressure changes also warn of the upcoming loud booms. You now have a dog that can predict a storm 3-4 hours before the storm even begins! By the time the storm hits they are already anxious and primed to over react. You now have a dog that is terrified of thunderstorms.

If your dog already has a fear of thunderstorms, there are two things you can do.

1.       Help manage your dog’s stress during the storm.

2.       Desensitize them to the sounds so they don’t continue to become stressed during thunderstorms.

First, you need to manage your dog’s stress level prior to, and during, the storm. All of these suggestions should be introduced before the first hint of a storm, not when the storm actually takes place. By the time a storm hits, the dog is already too stressed and it’s harder for them to calm down.

a)      Find a safe place for your dog to hide (crate, bathtub, under beds, etc. – any enclosed area). Make sure they have access to these areas during a storm.

b)      Use a Thundershirt or anxiety/compressions wraps. (http://www.thundershirt.com/)    

  • Create a positive association with the Thundershirt before using it during a storm
  • Have your dog wear a Thundershirt or wrap while they are relaxed and do fun stuff (play ball, get a massage from you, get treats, etc.)

c)       Play a relaxing CD. I recommend “Through a Dog’s Ears” (this is a series of music CDs designed to reduce anxiety in dogs http://throughadogsear.com/). As with the Thundershirt, you should positively condition your dog to the music before using it during a storm.

d)      Over the counter holistic aids – chews or drops that can lower anxiety (you can find these online or at your local dog supply store)

e)      Aromatherapy (I recommend Merlin’s Magic from frogworks.us )

f)       Provide chewing toys, like stuffed kongs or bones (chewing is a calming behavior for dogs)

Second, between thunderstorm seasons, you should desensitize your dog to the sounds of a thunderstorm.

a) There are CD’s available to help your dog become accustomed to the sound of thunderstorms.

b) The ideal time to begin desensitizing your dog to the sounds of thunderstorms is before he ever develops a fear or anxiety of them. If you create positive experiences for your dog with thunderstorm sounds, you will decrease the likelihood of a phobia ever developing. While it is relatively easy to desensitize your dog to the sounds of thunderstorms, it is nearly impossible to desensitize them to all the precursors of a storm!

Despite our best efforts, some sensitive dogs may continue to have difficulty with storms, even after using all the tools mentioned above.  If this is the case please talk with your veterinarian about possible medication options to help your dog cope. But, while it may take the edge off, medication will not solve the problem. Continue to work with your dog using the tools listed above and contact me or another force free trainer in your area for additional assistance.

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