Is Your Dog Scared of Thunder? Here Are Ways To Help
Thunderstorms are a normal part of summer in the South, but some dogs will never get used to them. That’s because many of our four-legged friends suffer from a phobia of thunderstorms—and there are only a few ways to help them get over it.
Phobias, those persistent and exaggerated fears of something that is unlikely to cause harm, are very real to the people or pups suffering through them. While a human with a phobia of heights can just avoid tall buildings, it’s hard for a dog to escape a thunderstorm taking over the sky. Dogs with a storm phobia can scratch at the door, bark, whine, pant, whimper, make an escape, hide in the bath, and even hurt themselves trying to get away from the intense storm. “It’s very serious,” Dr. Melissa Bain, an associate professor of clinical animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine told The New York Times. “It’s a true panic disorder with a complete flight response.”
By some estimates, around 40 percent of dogs have anxiety set off by those loud noises that give thunderstorms their names, as well as other booming sounds like fireworks or gun shots or other sudden noises. It’s such a common problem that animal shelters report that due to the loud, frightening noises of a July 4th firework display, July 5th is the busiest day of the year for lost dogs.
Dogs with thunderstorm phobias aren’t just triggered by noise though. The dropping barometric pressure, rain, flashes of lightning, and electrical charges in the air can all result in a very scared dog.
While it’s unclear what leads some dogs to fear a thunderstorm, according to PetMD.com, experts believe it may be more common in dogs who weren’t exposed to thunderstorms while they were growing up and “a genetic predisposition for emotional reactivity” (herding breeds are apparently more susceptible). It may also be worsened by “unintentional reinforcement of the fear response by owners”, where humans overreact to the pet’s behavior and make things worse. Another expert suggests that some canine anxiety may be caused by static build-up.
Unfortunately, the experts don’t seem to know what is the best way for humans to help their dogs through thunderstorms. Some experts say it is perfectly acceptable to try and soothe a scaredy-cat dog. “You can’t reinforce anxiety by comforting a dog,” Dr. Bain told The New York Times. “You won’t make the fear worse. Do what you need to do to help your dog.”
Other veterinarians disagree, though. Dr. Daniel S. Mills, a veterinarian and expert on canine noise aversion, told The New York Times that owners should “acknowledge the dog but not fuss over it.” He suggests showing the dog “that the environment is safe and not compatible with threat, by playing around and seeing if the dog wants to join you. But don’t force it. Let it make a choice.” The one thing that most experts agree on is that the most effective way to help a dog with its fear of storms is to catch it early. “Many will get worse with time if nothing is done," says Matt Peuser, DVM, a veterinarian at Olathe Animal Hospital told WebMD.com. Waiting to treat the phobia can make harder to cure or even ameliorate.
To help a stressed out pup during storms, therapy (really!) may help. One 2003 study showed significant improvement in that 30 out of 32 dogs with thunderstorm phobias thanks to therapy. Some dogs may be taught to be desensitized to storms with careful, patient, consistent training, but not all experts agree that will work.
There are other ways to help your puppy if it is prone to panicking during storms: Some dogs do well with constriction, such as either tight hugs or specially-designed dog clothing, like ThunderShirts. Other owners have found that cutting static can help and conscript items like the Storm Defender, a cape with a silver, anti-static lining, draped over their pup superhero-style backed up by science.
PetMD.com suggests creating a soothing environment for the dog by playing calming music or white noise to drown out the sound, doing positive conditioning like doling out treats and playtime during storms, and creating a safe space like a crate with a soft bed and a heavy blanket draped over the top might make your dog feel safer. If that isn’t working for your poor puppy, talk to your vet about calming supplements, over-the-counter medication, or prescription anti-anxiety drugs to help your pup during storms.