JoAnna Lou
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Helping Thunder Phobic Dogs
Tips for comforting your pup during a storm

As the saying goes, April showers bring May flowers.  And in my neck of the woods, we’ve certainly been getting a lot of rain and, unfortunately, thunderstorms.

My first dog, Nemo, has never been afraid of thunder. Being a Sheltie, he’ll sometimes bark at the loud noises, but he isn’t fearful. His breeder played sound tapes when he was a puppy, which I think helped.

I’m also fortunate that my new puppy, Remy, doesn’t seem to be affected by thunder. To ensure that it stays that way, I’ve been feeding him chicken every time I hear a loud boom. That way he begins to associate thunder with good things.

But for many dogs, storms bring panic and fear. Sometimes this fear even extends to the precursors to thunder, like dark skies, lightning, or changes in barometric pressure. 

The ASPCA recommends the following strategies to help your dog through a storm.

  • Comforting your dog with petting, praise, or massage/TTouch
  • Playing calming music
  • Using a TV, radio, fan, or canine noise-reducing headphones, such as Mutt Muffs, to muffle storm noises
  • Distracting your dog with a stuffed Kong, scattered treats, or a game of tug or fetch
  • Putting a body wrap on your dog, such as the Thundershirt or Anxiety Wrap
  • Exercising your dog on days when storms are coming

As a long-term solution, the ASPCA recommends counterconditioning your dog to thunderstorms, which is what I’m doing with Remy as a preventative measure. As I mentioned, this involves associating the scary sound with treats and toys. Ideally you’ll want to start with a recording of thunder noises at a low volume and gradually increase the level before a real storm comes. 

Many of my friends have had good results by using the Thundershirt in combination with a counterconditioning program.

If your dog has a serious fear, you can also speak to your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medicine or herbal remedies.

How does your dog react to thunder?


JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

Photo by craigCloutier/flickr.

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Indy's mom | April 18 2011 |

My Brittany Spaniel gets very worked up during storms - pacing, panting, trying to crawl into and behind things with very little space (behind the toilet there is not enough room for a 40-lb dog!). I found a treat called Mellow-Mutt by Dogswell (http://www.dogswell.com/mellow_mut/chicken_breast_jerky) - it has chamomille and lavender in it which really help to calm her. I give her about half a strip broken up into bits prior to the arrival of a storm (or just as it's beginning) and within about 10 minutes or so she's more relaxed. I recommend it.

Submitted by Karen O | April 18 2011 |

I went to a seminar by Dr. Nicholas Dodman (love him!) and he recommended melatonin for storm fear. I tried it with my mixed breed female dog (she usually shakes, drools and tries to get under my skin during storms)and the melatonin worked! Now I don't even need to use it. The melatonin + counter-conditioning did the trick after about 6 trails.

Submitted by Dr Dawg | April 18 2011 |

Good points!
A word of caution about this however...
I would separate these which can increase the chance that fear reaction continues or increases~
"Comforting your dog with petting, praise"from these *therapeutic* treatments:
Talking, looking and touching your dog while they are trembling and fearful, can actually reinforce that behavior.
This is similar to pushing your dog off you and telling it NO to get it to stop jumping. The attention will increase the likelihood that the dog will repeat the behavior to get the attention again.
=>Canine Touch Massage and TTouch can actually alter neuropathways to release the fear reaction at a brain/physical level.
Another example where you can actually create a worse fear response with "comforting, petting and praise" at the wrong times is at the vet office. If you are stroking and saying 'good dog', 'that's okay' while your dog is trembling or growling- you are reinforcing the fearful behaviors.
Distraction with a fun toy and having a party or engaging in a more fun activity where you are not reinforcing the dog's fear is a much better and scientifically proven way to reduce phobias from getting worse.
When the dog is having fun and distracted during gunshots, fireworks or thunderstorm, then you praise and say good dog when the tail is WAGGING!

Submitted by Jane | April 20 2011 |

I absolutely agree. I conditioned my German Shepherd as a puppy so she would not fear loud noises by introducing her to fireworks, letting her be present when a firecracker was set off, then letting her sniff the ground where it's remains were. We did this over and over. She learned the noise was nothing to fear but rather was something to be curious about. Now when we have thunderstorms, and we live in Florida where there are many storms, she wants to go check out the noise.
Not long ago, though, at the age of 8 years, she developed anxiety over the bright flashes of lightning. I knew not "comfort" her or hug her because that would reinforce this new fear. Instead, to combat her fear, I distracted her with games of tug or wrestling or fetch with her ball, all inside the house. This tactic worked well.

However, there were times when she didn't want to engage in play. On those days, I would simply open a closet door part way and allow her to use that area as a sort of den or quiet, safe place until the storm was over. I would do so quietly without making a big deal over it. Sometimes I would sit in the closet with her, next to her, not petting her, just simply keeping her company as we calmly waited for the lightning to end. If I talked to her, I would do so in a normal, matter-of-fact tone of voice.
Over time, she used the closet less, needed the play distraction less, and began acting more like she just doesn't like the lighting rather than fears it.

Submitted by Sugar's Mom | April 18 2011 |

My poor dog Sugar is a barometer. She not only can tell when it's about to rain, but also 'hits the deck' and switches between hiding under my bed and the couch when thunderstorms hit. Fireworks also are very hard on her, which makes July 4th and the 2 weeks before/after really stressful.

I've tried holding her, giving her massages, using rescue remedy in her water, etc. to calm her down, but nothing I do works. My vet gave her a prescription for doggy Xanax, which works somewhat if I give it to her in advance of the storms. Which means in the summer, I'm always looking at the weather report.

Submitted by Dr Dawg | April 21 2011 |

Sadly RX's become a necessary route for phobic behaviors.
It is easier to prevent unwanted behaviors than to fix them in most cases...so when you first get a dog or as puppy, important to understand that when you "comfort" the dog when it is scared- I mean giving attention (look, talk, touch)- that emotion in the dog is likely to be then associated with what is going on...and the reactions will continue.
The best thing we can do -is be a good role model in scarey situations..."Who me worry?"
Rather than "oh, poor baby, there, there, that's okay...."
We can move on to play activity or move to pleasurable place- laugh, smile and shrug it off-
Let the dog remove itself to a self-selected safe location, but your attention when dog is fearful is often rewarding the unwanted behavior.

Submitted by Dr Dawg | April 21 2011 |

I read the ASPCA Facebook page- I think the author here did not understand the ASPCA posts---her paraphrase of what they recommend is not accurate.
This FB ASPCA link distinguishes between therapeutic touch and just petting or "comforting".
You really *do not* want to reinforce a dog while exhibiting fearful behaviour; dogs will likely repeat the emotion of fear again when they have the stimulus. If the dog is trembling and you say "That's okay, sweetie, you're a good dog." then the trembling is reinforced with talking, touch and attention. Timing is everything...

=>Therapeutic touch targets neuro-pathways and had a different effect than simply stroking or petting a dog.

Good article explaining difference of therapeutic touch and "petting" or otherwise giving affectionate attention.

Submitted by ann | April 21 2011 |

this is a tough problem. i disagree with the part about comforting and petting dogs while they are upset during a storm. as tempting as it is to comfort them, i think it reinforces the behavior by teaching them that being upset will get them attention and affection. it's the same as with any other undesireable behavior.

distracting them can work, but it's difficult to do for hours on end, and impossible to do if you aren't home. i know several dogs who have had great success with the thunder shirt.

Submitted by Darlene | April 21 2011 |

thanks for the advice. We've had horrible storms two nights this week and more storms expected the next several days. My dog was beside himself even after getting 1/2 dose of medication prescribed by his vet. The dosage was supposed to be 1 tablet. He seemed calm but then the nasty stuff started and he was getting worse so I gave him the other 1/2 pill. About 20 minutes later he was calm. Not sure if it was due to storm ending or the medication starting to work. The following day he was like a zombie for the entire day. I had to take vitals to make sure his BP didn't drop too much. So next we're trying him on different medication. I have a Thundershirt but it doesn't seem to work on him unfortunately.

Submitted by Rachelle W. | May 3 2011 |

My dog developed severe t-storm phobia about a year ago. Her instinct seems to be to "den up" - squeeze into a dark, close space. Instead of fighting her to get her out from under the bed - somewhere she can't manage to get when her favorite toy has rolled under there - I've just taught her to go lay down in the bedroom closet when she's afraid. She's much calmer during storms now!

Submitted by Anonymous | May 3 2011 |

My dog is terrified of thunderstorms and lighting and has panic/anxiety/continuous shakes. I told this to my vet and he suggested one tablet of Benadryl. It works enough to let him just lay down next to us during the storm. My dog weighs approx. 30 pounds and the one tablet seemed to do the job. The next day was no issue with no side effects! Try it, you may find it to be cheaper and a lot safer! Good luck

Submitted by Anonymous | May 29 2012 |

I have used the Anxiety Wrap for over 8 years. It works like a charm!!

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