If your dog is restless when it looks like rain, starts to salivate and tremble, has uncontrolled bowel movement during thunderstorms, he or she may have thunderstorm phobia.
Thunder phobia is not something that can be cured overnight. But these steps have helped to keep Donna stable and calm during thunderstorms when we are at home. So I hope it will help your dog too.
Why the do-nothing-and-let-the-dog-deal-with-it-himself approach may not help
Thunderstorm phobia in dogs is real, not uncommon, and shouldn’t be ignored, experts say. “Most of the time they don’t grow out of it on their own, and many will get worse with time if nothing is done,” says Matt Peuser, DVM, a veterinarian at Olathe Animal Hospital in Kansas. – pets.webmd.com, when your dog is afraid of storms
Once a dog has developed a full-blown phobia, however, fear of storms can be dangerous to all. Dogs have jumped through windows, bitten when handled or eaten through walls.
– vetstreet.com, Thunderstorm fears aren’t always about noise
So what can we do?
1. Identify a safe space in your home where your dog feels most secure
Donna didn’t feel safe anywhere in the flat right at first, but she did find being under the table in the study comparatively more secure than being in the living room. Gradually, she learnt to relax there, despite the thunder. The bedroom works for her as well, when we close all the doors and windows and the thick blackout curtains are drawn so the thunder is muffled.
In order to calm down, your thunder-phobic dog will need to feel some level of safety first. A dog’s choice of a safe space may not be what you choose for him or her. So you may want to let her look for a safe spot for herself. But to help you along, here are some common examples of places where dogs feel better during thunderstorms:
- under the bed/table, in cupboards where it is more enclosed and den-like
- on the human bed or sofa where they find the human scent comforting
- the bathtub which is grounded and where there is less static electricity
Dr. Nicholas Dodman of Tufts University in Boston has theorized that some dogs, especially long coated breeds, can become statically charged during a thunderstorm, receiving electrical shocks from static unless they can ground themselves, which is done by retreating to a bathroom and hiding behind a sink or toilet, staying close to pipes that provide electrical grounding. It is an interesting theory and one that requires more research but it would certainly support why so many dogs end up cowering in a bathroom. Either that or bathrooms are a good place to seek refuge as they tend to have small or no windows, therefore blocking out the visual of a storm. – positively.com
2. Treat, treat, treat
Treats help to distract the dog from focusing on the scary thunderstorm. Over time, the objective is to help the dog slowly move towards being neutral towards the thunderstorm because every time it storms, she can expect a good time with a windfall of treats. Here’s a great video that explains the concept of counter-conditioning.
If you worry about the dog eating too many treats during counter-conditioning, what you can do is use your dog’s daily portion of dog food as treats. Regular dry food like kibble will not work because of how low value it is, particularly when the dog is probably too scared to eat. I like to use canned food because it is nutritionally balanced and very high value for dogs. You can easily portion canned food into smaller pea-size pieces to give to the dog through the duration of the storm. Although, the louder the storm, the harder it is to distract the dog, so correspondingly the food treat needs to increase in size to be effective. Check out the canned food that I buy here.
Canned food brands texture and how they work in a Kong toy
As your dog gets less and less affected by the thunder, you can start to use other treats that are more effortful like cheese or peanut butter that you can spread on your dog’s nose or some frozen treats stuck in a Kong toy. It takes time for your dog to lick them off thoroughly and keeps them distracted as well.
The Kong toy is particularly useful for feeding the dog during thunderstorms at night with least amount of effort (for the human :P)! Buy the Kong toy here
3. Interim products that can help
But what if your dog is already too scared to be interested in food? Point #2 will not work and counter-conditioning cannot even start in this case. This is where products such as the Thundershirt, Rescue Remedy or the DAP collar could help.
Donna loves going out so wearing her collar and lead sometimes gave her a temporary lift in emotions that helped to calm her down somewhat. The ThunderShirt appears to subdue and manage her negative over-excitement at the storm, but did not make her happier. At least, it stopped her nervous, uncontrolled pacing and climbing habit so she stays in one spot better.
Such products are designed to help calm your dog using different methods. They will work differently for different dogs, so keep your mind open should you consider trying them out. Personally, I find that the Thundershirt and calming scents like Rescue Remedy work better with Donna to a limited extent, compared to the DAP collar. But I had readers who left me comments that the Thundershirt and the DAP collar worked very well for them.
These are interim products to me because, ideally we need to help the dog to learn to relax during thunderstorms eventually without such aids. Simply because we can’t always be at home to administer them to the dog when it thunders.
The ThunderShirt® can be used with behavior modification programming and medication as an adjunct treatment option to assist dogs diagnosed with anxiety disorder to reduce heart rate.
– journalvetbehavior.com abstract, The effect of a pressure wrap (Thundershirt) on heart rate and behaviour in canines diagnosed with anxiety disorder
Based on the study above, that is the exact recommendation of the usage of such tools like the thundershirt – to use it together with the primary treatment. The tool itself is not a primary treatment.
I definitely find using a combination of the aids that work best with Donna, did help to keep her calmer and also to increase her receptiveness to food when offered. And if one type of food doesn’t work, keep trying to offer different high value foods to your dog until you find something that works to distract him.
Overtime, you may find, like I did, that Donna increasingly is able to ignore the thunder better in preference to focus on the human and the food rather than the thunder. And that is why I was able to proceed to Step 4.
4. Stormy weather is the best time to have fun!
Once Donna started to get the idea that she gets yummy food during a thunderstorm, you can start to see that her mood changes rapidly. She still reacts to signs before the storm – could be the change in air pressure, or static in the air, etc -and she gets restless, but once I take the food out she gets so excited and happy that she is able to disregard the thunder to a large extent. Think of the happiness some dogs show when they hear it’s time for a walk. She gets that happy! (Except for cases where the is thundering so loudly even humans will jump. )
At this point, I have largely stopped using the aids like the Thundershirt, etc as well unless it’s a very loud or long storm. And increasingly, it gets easier even to get her to practise her tricks while it thunders. But the main priority for me is still to make it fun for her when it storms so that gradually she can move from being neutral to the thunderstorm, even without the distraction of food. So something as simple as kibble fetch actually works very well in this case.
5. Be very, very patient
Thunder phobia comes in seasons, just like the rain. That means there’s an in between dry season where exposure to thunder is zero. Desensitisation and counter conditioning is on hold until the next season.
And most times, you’ll find the progress made in the last season is not necessarily cumulative. Sometimes you find you have to start all over again. Sometimes you’ll find that just because you were unfortunately out of the house two days in a row when it thundered badly, the dog regresses.
I had inconsistencies and some setbacks in the last season.
But the behaviours we reinforce over and over again do stick. From a dog that had to pace restlessly and climb furniture, Donna now has great impulse control. She stays calmly on the floor or on her bed. You know she may be distracted, but she is not in fear. She even responds beautifully to trick training sometimes, with the doors opened. Nothing to muffle the thunder or the rain.
Unfortunately, all these is reliant on me being there to mitigate or distract.
She is not as calm with Mr P.
She does inconsistently when alone at home. I think it really depends on many factors including the intensity of the storm and the cumulative levels of stress she may be under across days of rain and other stimuli. More about trigger stacking and stress hormones here.
Of course, when a whopper of a storm comes along, which often seems to happen when I am out of the house (human bias, haha! :P), she is downright terrified all alone by herself. So there are occasions when we still find her climbing furniture and leaving puddles of drool everywhere.
Hi mom! I’m so glad you’re home! There was a thunderstorm so I climbed on the sofa and drooled all over it and cookie monster.
I bought the Through A Dog’s Ear CD, which is supposed to help recreate the illusion of weather, so that desensitisation and counter conditioning may be more systemic and effective. Unfortunately, this is one area where I have been inconsistent, so I have not seen results yet. :P
The great thing about blogging is it keeps me revisiting topics that are important to Donna. So my next steps are to get back on track with that CD and the calming scent (when it rains) again this season.
If you are keen to help your dog conquer thunder phobia, I hope the above points help. Good luck!