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Thunderstorms and Dogs

Thunderstorms and Dogs

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.

Read more: Behavior & Communication, Pets, , , ,

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.

14 comments

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8:42PM PDT on May 15, 2013

A Border Collie that we once had was so adverse to thunderstorms that it put her in a blind panic, she often would dive and hide in the bathtub. We made sure that she was inside as she would run in panic at the sound of thunder.

4:50AM PDT on Mar 23, 2013

Thank you

4:14AM PDT on Mar 22, 2013

Thunderstorms instill the same fear and reaction in cats...my cats all run for cover underneath the furniture and every little corner they can find!!!

2:01PM PDT on Jun 1, 2009

Rescue remedy (Dr. Bach's Flowers) works for us. Our whippet is very scared of firecrackers and thunder. Of course, you have to be there when the storm is happening.
We also leave Mozart on for hours at a moderately high volume so it drowns out the sounds. Living very near two churches that constantly celebrate festivities with firecrackers, we have lived through many of these anxiety-causing episodes and it helps a little bit.

8:46PM PDT on May 23, 2009

I have experienced alot of the same. I found a Golden Ret. that was approx. 6-8 mo. who started out scared of storms, then it was loud noises too and storms too. It progressed with years, eventually he became aggressive to other animals and them me! The vet determined it was either nurilogical or a brain tumor. I unforturntely had to put him to sleep at 6 yrs old.

9:20PM PDT on May 18, 2009

My dog is terribly afraid oof thunder storms. He whimpers and shakes. He is 11 yrs old and still afraid of them, no matter how I try to sooth him

5:07PM PDT on Sep 12, 2008

I have heard another reason why animals may not like thunderstorms....the electricity in the air. This is why many start to react even before a storm has begun.

I have a friend whose dog is terrified of storms...shaking, trembling, etc. As weird as it may sound, the owner of the dog rubs a dryer sheet over the dog if he knows there is a storm coming. The dog is actually fine if he is rubbed with a sheet BEFORE a storm starts. I'm not a scientist, but if dryer sheets help remove static electricity, then they must help do the same for the animal when the electricity from a storm is around.

It's worth a try.

5:23PM PDT on Jul 28, 2008

This is all great advice, some we have tried already, others we will consider. Thank you. But our dog reacts even to the sound of rain, no thunder has to even be present. Other than this one behavior problem, she's the perfect pet!

11:14AM PDT on Jul 28, 2008

MY DOG ALSO SEEMS UPSET WITH STORMS. MAYBE THERE IS SOMEKIND OF TAPE REFLECTING THE SOUNDS OF THE THUNDER AND WHEN YOU ARE HOME CONTINUE TO PAY THEM AND SEE IF SHE CAN GET ACCUSTOM TO HEARING THAT NOISE. IF ITS DONE ON A DAILY BASIC MAYBE WHEN THE REAL THUNDER COMES IT WON'T BOTHER HER.

GOOD LUCK

11:32PM PDT on Jul 23, 2008

My poor dog is so afraid in T-storms that he shakes uncontrollably, and one time I could even hear his teeth clacking together, all over the room. If I'm near him, I hold onto him tightly and try to comfort him, but one thing that also works is to play loud (but soothing) music so that it drowns out the thunder booms. (Of course, it helps if you can do that without bothering neighbors with the noise!)

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