Is your dog afraid of thunder? Why are some dogs afraid of noises like thunder and fireworks, but others remain unaffected? No one is completely sure.
In some cases, puppy trauma (such as being tied up outside for long periods) may have something to do with it. Some owners say that breed-specific temperaments may play a role, and in other cases, sensitive hearing or separation anxiety may contribute. What is certain is that for some dogs, a minor case of nervousness can escalate into a full-blown phobia – a chronic, irrational, and overly panicked fear reaction.
What do dogs fear? How to help dogs overcome their fears
There is no guarantee that you will ever be able to completely resolve your dog’s fear of thunder. Is your dog afraid of thunder? There are ways to manage it effectively. Here are six strategies – from Thunder for Dogs to increasing exercise – that have worked particularly well for us:
Monitor your behavior during a thunderstorm
If you can’t remember anything else, remember this: Constant petting or consolation is often interpreted by pets as a reward for the fear response – or reinforcement that the fear response is justified. Conversely, punishment will only increase a panicked pet’s anxiety level. Our solution? Project a calm, cool environment and give your dog attention in the form of play, grooming, or other activities he normally enjoys.
Change your environment when the thunder hits
Changing your pet’s location can be surprisingly effective, as it can help reduce the volume level of the storm or make him less aware. Rescue, for example, likes to stand on the bathroom rug with the fan buzzing whenever there’s a storm outside. This creates “white noise” that blocks out the noises that bother him. Allowing your pet access to the basement, or a room without windows can have a similar effect.
Some puppies find a closet or the area under the bed particularly safe and secure. If your pet is heading for his crate, try covering it with a blanket to increase his sense of security. However, keep the crate door open so your pet doesn’t feel confined (which can greatly increase his anxiety).
Get more exercise before a storm starts
When thunderstorms are predicted, we try to take Rescue for a few extra walks before the clouds roll in. This helps to tire him out mentally and physically. Many vets say it can also increase natural serotonin levels, which then act as a natural calming agent.
Use counterconditioning during a storm
This fancy behavioral term simply means that we help Grant associate something negative (the storm) with something positive. For example, we keep Grant’s favorite toy hidden and bring it out to play when he starts to feel nervous about an approaching storm. We also sometimes give him a special treat during these times, like a small piece of bacon or cheese. This diverts his attention, and enjoying the treat or toy during the storm has gradually helped to recondition his reaction.
Try desensitization if your dog is afraid of thunder.
We practice this during the off-season of storms, usually in the winter. To start, simply play a CD or Spotify mix of thunderstorm sounds at an extremely soft level. While your dog remains relaxed at this level, say a simple keyword like “Calm” and give him a yummy treat every 15 seconds or so. Then gradually increase the amount of time your pet needs to stay relaxed before receiving the treat. Once your puppy can stay relaxed on command, turn the volume up a notch and repeat the process. If, at any point, your pet shows pronounced fear or panic, return to the previous volume level, say the keyword, and reward him for staying calm.
When a real storm occurs, continue using this same cue/reward system.
Rescue exhibits some pretty intense fear in the face of storms. The good news is that we have been able to help him cope without the use of medication. If none of these approaches work for you, have a frank discussion with your vet. In extreme cases, some medications can help keep your puppy comfortable. But follow Rescue’s lead: a little dedication and ingenuity on your part may be all it takes to help your dog cope.