By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
With the summer storm season upon us, some pups will be frolicking in the rain and rolling in their favorite mud puddles, while other dogs will be shivering in fear at the mere whiff of rain in the air. What makes a thunderstorm scary to some dogs, and how can we help our furry friends?
Excessive panting, whale eyes, hiding, whining, clambering to escape, and other destructive behaviors during thunderstorms can all be signs of a fear response from environmental changes during a storm. These changes include atmospheric pressure, loud and sudden noises, static electricity in the environment, varied acoustics from the rain falling, and flashes of lightning.
Why Are Dogs Afraid of Thunder?
For several reasons, we’ve linked anxiety and fear to the environmental changes that come with thunderstorms. First, there is a difference between fear and anxiety to note. Fear is directly related to something a dog is experiencing: I hear that loud noise, and it scares me because of how it feels in my ears. Anxiety is fear of what could be: the rain isn’t scary, and I don’t mind it on my skin, but other scary things could follow the rain.
Some of the reasons we know storms trigger a dog’s anxiety or spark a dog’s fear include the following:
Barometric Pressure Changes
These atmospheric changes happen with air pressure that dogs can easily sense. The changes can cause ear discomfort, similar to how your ears may feel on a plane when ascending rapidly.
Longer or double-coated dogs may actually receive small shocks or sparks from static electricity - static charges in the clouds affect the charges on the ground, increasing static electricity on the ground. Dogs, like humans, are not fans of being zapped!
Loud noises can be scary, especially for sound-sensitive dogs that may already have noise phobias or other sensitivities related to noise aversion. Fireworks, gunshots, or even dropping a pan on accident, and your dog seeming as if they may jump straight out of their skin indicates that they may be sensitive to and are afraid of loud noises. Fear of thunder is common in pups that prefer the calm and quiet to the commotion or unpredictable loud sounds from storms.
Some dogs already have light sensitivities, which can send them into overdrive. The strobe effect that sometimes occurs with lightning is something some dogs are more sensitive to than others and take concern with.
How to Calm Your Pup’s Storm Anxiety
There’s often no silver bullet for eliminating fear and anxiety related to thunderstorms. However, there are many tools in the toolbox that, when used together, can significantly decrease your pup’s stress level. Here are options to consider layering in to soothe their fears:
Be There for Your Pup
Don’t leave them to fend for themselves. Be home with your dog or have someone your dog is comfortable with keep them company. Though initially, it is the storm causing anxiety or fear, over time, that anxiety can transfer to occasions when they are home alone and potentially develop into separation anxiety.
If you have a new dog or puppy (or are fostering) and don’t know if they are afraid of storms, don’t leave them home alone. Be with them during their first storm to help prevent fear; if they are scared, you’ll know they need support moving forward.
Provide Some Creature Comforts
Provide comfort first in whatever way that looks for your dog. Whether it’s climbing into an empty bathtub with comfy blankets and just being present, calm, and connected with them, or swaddling them in an anxiety wrap like a Thundershirt, closing all of the blinds and cuddling up in their favorite safe place - start with doing what makes your pup feel best at that moment.
Muffle the Sounds of the Storm
Try using muffling sounds such as brown noise, pink noise, or calming music curated for dogs. While you can’t block the outside noise entirely from them since dogs have a fantastic sense of hearing, you can significantly reduce the presence of scary noises using sounds considered calming by dogs. Brown noise and pink noise, which are lower frequency tones, have been shown to potentially be more soothing than white noise, which is a higher frequency tone.
Consider Anxiety Medication
Talk with your veterinarian about whether event-specific medication (taken only during potentially scary events) and/or supplements may be a good fit for your pup. Whether it’s a gentle natural calming supplement to take the edge off or a stronger medication such as trazodone, providing relief from scary things is one of the kindest things you can do for your furry friend during thunderstorms.
Try Calming Scents
Some dogs respond well to calming scents such as lavender and chamomile or a maternal appeasing pheromone like Adaptil through diffusers. While scents haven’t been shown to make a significant difference against intense fears or anxieties, some dogs are responsive to them. It’s always worth trying and layering it with other calming techniques, such as muffling sounds, to see what combination provides the most comfort.
Let Them Hide
If your pup wants to squeeze into that tight corner in your bedroom closet or smush themselves under that small end, they believe that’s a safe space compared to out in the open. Pulling a fearful dog out of that perceived safer area can increase the likelihood of behavior problems and decrease their trust in you. If you want to make them feel better, sit with them in their safe space.
How to Prevent and Treat Thunderstorm Phobia
Unfortunately, thunderstorm phobia doesn’t just get better with time; it worsens without treatment. Desensitization (getting used to it) rarely happens naturally when a being is genuinely anxious or afraid. Our canine companions need help with that process. Stress can open the door more easily to diseases and infections because too much stress, especially repetitive and over long periods of time, can weaken your dog’s immune system. Effective treatment of phobias, like thunderstorms, requires the help of a behavior professional through a process known as behavior modification.
Behavior professionals focus on the emotions behind behaviors and replace harmful behaviors with alternative helpful behaviors. A board-certified veterinary behaviorist is the first line of defense for true storm phobia since they can put together both a behavior modification plan for you and prescribe medication and/or supplements if they feel it would help the process. This is especially an important choice if your pup suffers from other underlying anxiety behavior issues besides Thunderstorm phobia and may benefit from an anti-anxiety medication different from an event-specific medicine.
Other behavior professionals that can partner with your primary care veterinarian and help implement behavior modification techniques are Certified Dog Behavior Consultants, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, and dog trainers with specialized training and experience with storm phobia.
After some initial trust-building work with your dog, behavior professionals often introduce your frightened pup to minimal doses of the sounds of recorded thunderstorms. These are meant to be noticeable but tolerable by your dog so that counterconditioning can be successful; layering in something good such as different treats each time they hear the sound, to change the perception of the stimuli from concerning to neutral and, eventually, pleasant. Gradually, the sound of thunder increases while the fear response dissipates, and more real-life scenarios are slowly incorporated to elicit a stress-free reaction from the dog.
When it comes to thunderstorm phobia prevention, while it’s always great to enlist the help of a training or behavior professional, there are certain things that you can do on your own with your puppy or dog who does not yet experience fear or anxiety during storms such as:
Play tug of war, fetch, frisbee, play with their favorite toys, or do other fun physical activities outside with your pup before, during, and after rain when thunder and lightning aren’t present.
When thunder and lightning are present, still play with your puppy or dog during the storms but safely indoors away from windows. Use food treats to roll out with thunder booms so they can chase them and return to you for more.
Use Calming Noises
Condition your puppy or dog to brown noise or calming music during relaxing times of the day by using these sounds as background noise when rubbing their ears gently or snuggling in for a nap. Calming sounds used during times your pup will already be in chill mode can help those sounds be more impactful when used when they are feeling stressed, such as during storms.
Give Them a Distraction
Protect Them from Shocks
Spray your pup’s long or double coat with a light dog conditioning spray before storms to reduce the likelihood of static shocks.
Key Takeaways on Thunderstorm Anxiety
A slow and sometimes subtle buildup of fearful behavior of storms can sometimes show up in a dog that is three or four years old and has never seemed to be afraid of thunderstorms before. This is one of the reasons that preventive exercises are so important, as signs may not be noticeable before their final sexual and social maturity period.
Additionally, watch your senior dogs closely for subtle signs, as the pressure can affect their fragile joints differently with age. As their senses become less sharp, they may become more anxious.
Whether it’s the flashing light, the pressure, the big booms of thunder, or the electricity, there are many ways to help your fearful or anxious dog overcome the sometimes debilitating feeling that engulfs them from thunderstorm phobia.
Dog owners are a dog’s best defense against the scary unknown of the environmental changes brought about by storms. They rely on us not just for food, shelter, and the basics but also for their comfort and security. If your pup is uneasy, try these recommendations to bring more comfort. Don’t hesitate to contact a behavior professional to provide relief from the big, looming, booming gray clouds.