My city dogs seem pretty accustomed to loud noises. We have trucks, sirens, street sweepers, you name it–they don’t bat an eye at thunder claps. But recently at a meeting at Annie’s in the rural woods, a thunderstorm passed by, and her sweet dog Cleo started shaking as if she’d seen a ghost.
What it is about thunderstorms that has some dogs whimpering and aquiver? I consulted The Dog Behavior Answer Book by Arden Moore (Storey Publishing, 2006)–the same author who advised us on cats and houseguests earlier–to learn dogs and thunderstorms, here’s her insight:
Even before that first thunder boom or lightening flash, many dogs scurry into closets, crawl under beds, or leap into bathtubs. Some even try to dig through the carpet in a desperate attempt to hide, or crash through windows or doors to escape the terrifying noise. Fear of uncontrollable situations is a natural response in people and animals, but if fear worsens with repeated exposure to the stimuli, it can become a phobia. A phobia is defined as a fear that is out of proportion to the danger of the actual situation or event.
Without proper intervention, phobias escalate with repeated exposure to the stimulus. For dogs, phobias often involve loud noises, such as the sound of thunderstorms. Dogs have been known to physically harm themselves–and others–in their attempts to escape these frightening sounds.
The first step in dealing with a fearful or anxious dog is to schedule a complete physical examination with your veterinarian to rule out any possible underlying medical problem, such as hyperthyroidism, Cushing’s disease, or other condition. It is vital to reinforce basic obedience behaviors like sit, down, and stay, and to teach them to focus on an activity that distracts from the sound of the storm. Be sure to provide your pet with tasty treats during these training sessions.
Desensitization is often paired with counter-conditioning. Desensitization uses baby steps to build your dog’s confidence. If he is afraid of loud noises, you expose him t the sound at low volume and reward him for being calm. You can purchase CDs of storm sounds at music stores or online. As he continues to demonstrate no fear, you gradually increase the volume. Counter-conditioning associates the presence of a trigger with a positive experience such as eating or playing. you can also teach your dog to down stay on a mat or other safe place when there are no storms around. Once he learns this relaxation behavior, you can teach him to settle down in that safe place during a storm.
These techniques require patience and may take quite a bit of time, so don’t expect an instant cure. Never punish a fearful pet by yelling or striking, because such actions can worsen his phobias and anxieties. Instead, touch your dog gently and speak calmly to reassure him but avoid excessive displays of concern or petting. Speak in upbeat tones, act happy, and divert your pet’s attention to a treat or fun activity. Your goal is to deliver a message that the storm is no big deal.