We had quite the thunderstorm last night–lightning, loud booms of thunder, high winds, tornado sirens. Some people may have slept right through it, but there were many people who woke up to a whining dog, trying to crawl under the bed or break out of their crate.
Fear of thunderstorms in dogs is common and often gets worse as the dog ages. We don’t know why some dogs have a fear of thunder or loud noises, but perhaps it really hurts their sensitive ears. Storms produce electricity in the air, which may be a major factor. Perhaps the dog feels a generalized static shock as the storm approaches from which they try to escape. Air pressure changes during storms, too, and dogs’ ears are more sensitive to pressure changes than humans. It is also possible that their human companions become more fearful or agitated with the impending storm.
If your dog has a loud noise phobia, it is important not to reward the fearful behavior. If you pet and praise the dog when it is fearful, it will increase the likelihood of that fearful behavior occurring more frequently. Speaking to the dog in a high-pitched voice, telling him that it is “ok,” and trying to provide comfort by cuddling him or petting him are all “rewards” for the dog. Instead, you want to only reward your dog when he is behaving calmly, happily, or confidently. Practice this reward when there isn’t a storm–give yummy treats and verbal praise when your dog is sitting still, not cowering, wagging his tail, and “being happy.”
You can try desensitizing and counterconditioning your noise-fearing pet. Initially teach your pet “sit-stay” and “down-stay” during a time with no distractions or loud noises. Use a highly valued reward (treat or toy) that they only get during the training period. Once your pet responds quickly and consistently to the commands, you should begin training in a variety of locations. To begin desensitization and counterconditioning, choose a location where your pet feels comfortable and secure. You will need to have a way to produce the “scary” noise at different intensity levels. There are several apps available for your phone or other device that would work well.
Initially, expose your pet to a low level of the scary noise. The intensity of the noise should be just below the threshold where the dog starts to react. In an upbeat tone, give the dog a command to sit or lie down. Reward him if he responds without any sign of fear or anxiety. You want him to associate the positive experience and relaxed state with the noise. Continue the training, increasing the noise a little at a time. If your dog starts to become anxious, decrease the intensity of the noise until he can be calm again and ignore him as best you can. Once he calms down and can be distracted and following his commands, you can give him a reward. After he is calm during the greatest intensity of the noise, start training him in other locations.
Desensitization doesn’t always work and can be too time-consuming for some owners. There are other things that may help. Adaptil is a pheromone, or scent, produced by mother dogs that is calming to other dogs. It comes as a diffuser, which plugs into the wall, which spreads the pheromone through the house. There is also a spray, which you can spritz on a bandana or towel. It also comes in a collar form. For thunderstorm phobias, since the dog knows the storm is coming way before humans do, the diffuser or collar would be the most beneficial.
Some dogs feel more calm when they wear a Thundershirt or can get under the bed covers. If your dog finds comfort in being held, the Thundershirt would be worth a try.
Some dogs have such high anxiety to loud noises that they need an anti-anxiety medication prior to storms. These medications can be used “situationally”–only during thunderstorms or around the Fourth of July. For dogs that have generalized anxiety, in addition to thunderstorm anxiety, giving them behavior-modifying medication daily might be the best option. If you have questions about your dog’s phobias, please discuss it with your veterinarian!