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Does your dog become scared and desperate when dark skies are brewing? Do they seem anxious and worried at the slightest rumblings of a storm?
The pacing, panting, tightly tucked tail, escalating panic and running to hide wherever they can: Thunder phobia is heartbreaking to see and often as disturbing for a loving dog parent as it is for the dog.
And there is plenty of confusion about the best way to deal with it.
Luckily, we have the answers right here. Read on to learn exactly why fear of thunder occurs, how your dog feels at the time and what you can do to help your poor dog.
Why Are Dogs Scared Of Thunder Storms Anyway?
Nobody is 100% sure of all the factors, but it’s fairly safe to assume it is a product of evolution, that for survival it makes sense to fear and to escape an approaching storm.
They bring cold and wet weather that can lead to hypothermia, heavy rains that can lead to flash flooding and are often accompanied by lightning; all things that can seriously endanger an animal’s life.
Besides this, they simply don’t know what thunder is and it’s an inborn trait of most animals to fear of very sudden, very loud and unexpected bangs!
Why Do Dogs Get Scared Before We Even Hear Any Thunder?
Many owners report their dog showing fear way before a storm even hits, spawning many theories that dogs can sense things us humans can’t.
Nobody is sure of all the triggers, but it’s widely believed that dogs have the ability to sense any number of the following signs that a storm is approaching:
- Distant, low-frequency rumbles of thunder that are beyond human hearing but are loud to the sensitive hearing of a dog.
- A theory that dogs suffer painful shocks of electricity caused by a build up of static before a storm hits.
- Changes in air pressure.
- The smell of a storm coming (I’ve even heard people claim they themselves can smell ozone in the air blown in before a storm.)
Whatever the triggers, the problem of storm phobia in dogs is very real and extremely sad to see.
How Does a Scared Dog Feel?
A dog with a phobia has an internal reaction to an external stimulant. There are chemicals within their body reacting to a situation and making them feel a certain way. It’s an automatic, physical response and out of their control.
Fear is a result of a dog feeling their safety is being threatened and their body is preparing to deal with the situation with a fight or flight reaction.
The process begins with a release of adrenaline into the body which causes an instant, intense, stressed feeling and a surge of nervous energy.
This physical process is exactly the reason dog trainers who promise an easy fix for a scared dog should be avoided. When the chemical process has begun it has to be slowed and reversed to make the dog feel better and this is the only long-term solution. There is no quick and easy fix.
How Does Canine Thunder Phobia Develop?
When a dog’s fear in response to a particular sound worsens over time, this is described in canine behavioral terms as ‘sensitization’.
A dog that has become sensitized to a sound becomes psychologically and physically trapped in a cycle of fear whenever that sound is heard and any improvement in their behavior can only be made by careful observation and gentle desensitization.
A dog can become fearful of something for many reasons. If your dog is scared of thunder then at some point in their life they will have learned this fear and it’s been made stronger since by other things happening in their environment.
Fear is strengthened in a two stage process:
- The first time a dog becomes worried by the sound, the process begins. It may be the dog heard their first thunderstorm at a few weeks of age during a stage of their puppy-hood when fear is easily learned. Or they may associate thunder with a negative experience that occurred such as something being dropped nearby or being locked outdoors in a storm.
- The second stage of the process is reinforcement, the stage where the fear is made stronger. A dog may have been paid a lot of comforting attention for the fear, or learned that during a storm, the people in the home look agitated and stressed out too. Dogs take their cue from their human family, so they may have learnt when there’s a storm EVERYBODY is scared so they’d better be too.
You may never figure out exactly how the fear started or developed but this isn’t really a problem. You just make an educated assessment of the dogs feeling at present and then work to move forward into a brighter future where you carefully teach your dog that there is another option.
Instant Help For Dogs Scared Of Thunder During A Storm
There are a few things can help a scared dog where relief can be found quite quickly.
Each of these options work with a dog because they affect the chemical reaction inside the body and not simply targeting the behavior itself.
All dogs are different though and while one of these approaches may help your dog, another may have no effect on the fear at all.
It’s certainly worth experimentation with the following methods, to find which one, or which combination, works for your own dog:
Somewhere To Hide
If your dog feels scared they will benefit from being able to go somewhere quiet, to relax as much as they possibly can.
You may have seen your dog push behind the sofa or into other dark, confined corners? If so, don’t attempt to move them. They’ve gone into a place where they can feel safest.
You can help by providing such a place, the best option being a nice, comfortable crate covered with a blanket. But remember not to close the door, let alone lock it as this might result in panic.
For advice on buying the right size crate, see my article here on dog crate sizes.
And for appropriate covers for your crate, to create a nice den like shelter that your dog will love, providing a nice feeling of security, please click here.
A Long Lasting, Tasty Chew Treat
Alongside providing a dark, covered area you can give your dog something nice to chew before the beginning of a storm.
Chewing is a natural way for dogs to achieve a relaxed and gentle state of calm. It’s half the reason they do it and love to chew so much.
A Kong toy stuffed with some of their favorite, tasty treats is ideal!
It’s important that this be given before any fear is showing though because they shouldn’t feel the fear is being rewarded.
Adaptil: Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP)
Adaptil is a synthetic chemical calmer that mimics the natural comforting pheromone a mother dog releases that has a reassuring and calming effect on her puppies.
Adaptil creates a better hormonal balance and is known to have a considerable effect on some dogs that suffer with recurring phobias.
It is available in many forms including a spray for the dog’s bedding and paws, plug-in diffusers, collars and even tablets.
This is a piece of clothing for dogs designed to fit tightly on the core chest and body areas.
The tightness of the shirt works to enable the dog’s body to produce hormones causing a feeling of safety and thus reverses the effect of adrenaline production, one of the physical changes that occurs during fear.
The effect can be a lessening of the fear felt by a dog. It’s kind of like a re-assuring hug that we might give a loved one.
There are a number of plant-based natural remedies that may help a dog to settle during a storm.
Skullcap and Valerian root are available for use in the short-term with stressed dogs, as is Rescue Remedy from Bach flower remedies.
These options work in various ways to try to restore hormonal balance in the dog and reverse the production of adrenaline, hence lessening feelings of fear.
Long-Term Solutions To Help Dogs Scared Of Thunder
The prognosis for improving your dog’s reaction to thunder in the long-term is actually very good. But it’s vital the right approach is followed and for this it’s usually important to consult an expert. But what would they do, and can you do it yourself?
The trained behaviorist will assess the extent of the fear and create a specific plan for your dog which might include the following:
Gradual Desensitization By Use Of Recorded Sounds
[amazon fields=”B00B8Y1D2Q” value=”thumb” image_size=”large” tracking_id=”labradortraininghq-20″ image_class=”ais200fl”] Many working dog establishments begin preparing puppies for coping in a working life at an early age.
Puppies from birth are played recordings of very particular sounds with the aim of teaching the youngsters sounds such as thunder and fireworks are completely normal and should cause no undue concern.
Desensitization works in a similar way to reverse an already learned fear. You play a CD containing sounds of thunder, first at such a low level that it doesn’t trigger your dog to feel scared, then gradually and carefully increase the volume of the sounds over many weeks and months.
Eventually, they are so used to the sound of thunder they become oblivious to it and are said to be ‘desensitized.’
The world renowned dog trainer and television presenter, Victoria Stilwell, has created a ‘Canine Noise Phobia Series’ of CDs to be used fo this treatment. The CD comes with full instructions and the therapy can be quite effective.
Counter-Conditioning A Dogs Thinking Process
This is teaching a dog to feel something other than fear in response to a storm and thunder.
This is achieved by gradually coupling a dampened version of the sound with things the dog finds joyful and pleasant.
For example, by playing low level sounds of thunder from a CD and having an exuberant play session with your dog, or giving them a Kong stuffed with their favorite treats, they begin to learn that the sound of thunder means good things are coming, that they can expect this treat.
You would then gradually and carefully increase the volume over many weeks, as well as giving the same treat when a real storm occurs.
Over time your dog’s feelings of fear are replaced with anticipation and happiness, looking forward to their treat when they hear the sound of thunder.
For a good explanation of the process, please see ‘Thunder phobia in dogs‘ by Patricia McConnell.
Combine The Short-Term And Long-Term Solutions For Best Results
To get the best results, you need to combine the short-term and the long-term solutions.
The short-term solutions help your dog to feel better ‘in the moment’, helping them deal better with and feel more comfortable during a storm so the phobia doesn’t get any worse.
The long-term solutions target the root causes of the problem and work towards a final and complete cure.
Combine them both and with patience and dedication, you can truly help your dog to overcome their fears and can really improve their lives.
What You Shouldn’t Do
There are certain ways in which you must never respond to a scared dog, ways that can make the fear and as a consequence the behavior worse. So avoid the following reactions at all costs:
- Punishment – Never punish or use aversion training on dogs that are scared or worried. As you can imagine, punishment will not slow the chemical reaction, in fact it will probably speed it up leading to aggression or complete emotional shut down, both of which will make the fear worse.
- Too much sympathy – by sympathizing too much, fussing over and excessively comforting your dog you can easily reinforce the behavior and make it worse. The best thing to do is act normally during a storm. Giving the dog a sense of normality will give them a degree of confidence that all is well. Ignore some others who advise not to comfort them at all though, just don’t go overboard and make a huge fuss!
- Lock the dog away – it may seem like a good idea to shut the dog in a crate and save your furniture, yet can you imagine being locked away while terrified? It would be an awful experience so why do it to a dog that you love?
- Expect the dog to ‘get used’ to the sound – there is a very old dog training technique known as flooding. This was based upon exposing the dog to the sound or environment they’re scared of in very large doses until they get used to it. ‘Flooding’ their emotions until the fear is exhausted and they come out the other side used to the thing causing fear. This rarely works and usually just heightens the chemical reaction, thus increasing the stress and fear felt this and the next time. NEVER do this!
It’s Often Best To Simply Focus On Getting Expert Help
If your dog can find no relief and you’re unable to help them with the techniques outlined above, you should consult a dog behavior specialist.
It’s vital to find a qualified behaviorist with suitable experience as dog training is an unregulated profession and poor handling of a phobia by an unqualified trainer could escalate the fear, instead of making it any better.
For the same reason, if your dog’s phobia is severe or you aren’t confident in treating mild cases with the long-term solutions, you should also consult a professional so that you don’t make things worse yourself.
Finally, if your dog is so fearful that it’s having an overall effect on their quality of life, your vet may prescribe short-term medication to work beside a behavior modification plan.
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