Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs

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Ahh, ‘tis the season for rain, thunder, lightning… and a pooch shaking with overwhelming fear.  As a professional dog trainer and dog walker, it breaks my heart to see this.  Sadly, thunderstorm phobia — or fear of thunderstorms — is all too common in our pet dogs.  But why does this happen in our dogs, and what can we do to ensure our canines feel safe and secure during this storm season?


Many of my clients tell me their dog knows well before a storm is coming.  Considering the amazing senses of our domesticated canines, I’m not at all surprised by this.  A dog’s hearing is significantly more sensitive than ours, so I’m sure the loud decibels (such as cracks of thunder and heavy rain fall) seem much more intense to our pets.  They can hear a larger ranger of frequencies than us, so they are detecting the low frequencies of a storm much sooner than us.  In my recent blog “What do dogs really hear?”, we discussed how dogs can hear 4x the distance as humans, also allowing them to detect an approaching storm sooner.  Dogs can also sense the atmospheric changes, such as barometric pressure, in and around a storm.  I imagine this must appear like the end of the world is nearing to some dogs, and this is why they develop significant anxiety associated with thunderstorms.


So in essence, dogs can smell, hear, and sense a thunderstorm much sooner than it actually hits.  *Side note: perhaps some new service work — doggie meteorologists!*  However, as a behaviorist, the fact that our dogs can sense storms well before their arrival can be a disadvantage.  If the owner doesn’t recognize the early anxiety in their pet, the dog can continue to escalate as the storm nears, norepinephrine and adrenaline surging through their veins.  By the time the storm arrives, nothing the owner tries is effective because the dog is already so agitated.


Therefore, Step 1 to being a good pet owner: recognize symptoms and signs on anxiety in your pet.  Your professional dog walker with Wisconsin Pet Care is trained to recognize these too!  Different dogs will express their anxiety in different ways, but here is a list of the most common signals:

  • retreat/avoidance/hiding/reclusive behavior (many dogs try to “make a den” and wedge themselves in small, tight spaces)
  • excessive pacing or frantic activity level
  • attention-seeking behavior, height-seeking
  • whining/vocalizing
  • hyper-salivation (drooling)
  • trembling/shaking
  • some other physiological changes to watch for: increased heart rate and respiration, sweaty paws, dilated pupils, appetite suppression, sudden dander/shedding

If you see any cluster of these symptoms during storms, proceed to step 2.


Step 2: Contact a professional trainer and veterinary behaviorist.  You are going to need support to help heal you hound of this anxiety.  Find someone with the credentials to deal with your dog’s phobia.  Depending on the severity of the anxiety, homeopathic and/or behavior modifying drugs may need to be used (see Step 4).  You will want to be on board with your trusted vet, or even a specialist, to ensure whatever you are trying is safe and effective for your pooch.


Step 3:  Begin to re-train your dog with safe techniques, such as desensitization and counter-conditioning.  Start simple, and re-create a very low level of storm to begin desensitizing.  This can be accomplished with a recording of a storm, played at a very low volume.  Work up to a louder volume, and slowly add other stimuli.  I’ve had clients go to the extent of darkening a room, turning on a sprinkler against the window, and turning on a strobe light to mimic a storm.  During these re-training sessions, counter-condition your dog with a high value reinforcer (perhaps a stinky treat or favorite toy).  I personally love to teach dogs to “go to their safe spot” on command during these exercises, so when a real storm comes, they know exactly what to do to feel “safe”.  Pair all of your pooch’s favorite things with different aspects of the storm, to teach him or her that it’s not to scary after all!


Step 4:  Research natural calming aids, and discuss with your vet and behaviorist to find what will work best (and safest!) for your pet.  There are many options out there today to help relieve anxiety in our dogs.  The ThunderShirt, a harmless anxiety wrap, is becoming more popular for pet owners to try.  Pheromone therapy can create a sense of well-being and help calm your canine.  Some clients will spray a bandana with pheromones for their pup to wear during storms.  Others find the convenience of the 24/7 pheromone collar or diffuser more helpful, since they don’t have to “predict” when to utilize the pheromone therapy.  “Through a Dog’s Ear” CD helps dilute out the sounds of the storm for my Chihuahua, and it relaxes him quicker during our departures too.  There are even calming treats now, and more and more research is being done to prove essential oils can help alleviate storm phobia.  Inform your professional pet sitter your protocol during storms, so we know how best to care for your pet if a storm should occur under our care.


If all of the steps above are STILL not cutting it for your canine, drug therapy and medications may need to be used, such as SSRIs and/or benzodiazepines, to help your dog’s fear of storms.  Your veterinary behaviorist is the best resource, if it comes to this for your pet.  The goal is to use drug therapy in conjunction with the re-training program, and eventually ween the dog off all drugs after re-training is accomplished.  Depending on the dog’s behavior and health, there are just too many variables to discuss all the drug possibilities in this brief blog.


However, I will inform you to be an advocate for your pet and DO NOT ALLOW YOUR VET TO PRESCRIBE ACEPROMAZINE FOR THUNDERSTORM PHOBIA!!!  PhD research done by Dr. Patricia McConnell indicated significant brain wave activity of dogs on Ace, despite the sedative effect it had on their body.  So though your dog may be sedated, no longer pacing, whining, and driving you crazy… their brain is STILL ANXIOUS, and you may WORSEN THE ANXIETY by using this medication!


Don’t let thunderstorm phobia rain on your dog’s parade — help them today with these tips!