Dog Thunder Storm Fears

It was a dark and stormy night…

and with each boom of thunder, each crash of lightening, terror in the dog’s heart grew. It reduced him from a self confident, well adjusted family pet to an unrecognizable quivering mass. Having sensed the coming storm well before his owners could see or hear anything, the dog had begun to pace, panting. They spoke, trying to reassure him; but as the storm drew closer the dog began to tremble and shake. Unresponsive to soothing words from his owners, he searched for escape. Climbing onto the sofa he began to dig; as thunder rumbled, the dog moaned and a stream of urine was involuntarily released upon the sofa. He curled his mass down into a tiny ball, oblivious to the puddle where he had just wet, tremoring violently.

The reality of a dog’s thunder storm phobia is more than just unpleasant fiction for some pet owners; it can be nearly as stressful for them as weather changes are for their rattled pets. Keepers of thunder-fearing dogs often try to anticipate weather changes in hopes of being able to minimize stress. At the first quiver they may offer treats, petting, or just hold their dogs protectively. Unfortunately, the storm phobic dog may remain afraid despite–but not because of–comfort from human attention; the fear is too overwhelming.

Offering treats to “desensitize” a dog’s fear won’t work if the dog is in full self-defense mode; fear is an emotional state and in that state appetite isn’t a driving force. To “reinforce fear” would mean the fear increases in frequency in response to reinforcement. This isn’t what happens. Dogs will not become increasingly fearful in response to food and petting; they just may not feel any better in spite of it. Coddling won’t make the dog’s actual fear of storms worsen, though the presence of the owner during such an event may have a calming influence, and could help decrease the likelihood of damage or self-injury. Sometimes storm phobic dogs becomes destructive in their efforts to escape, especially if left alone during a storm.

What causes some dogs to be so under the weather while others remain unconcerned? In recent years animal behaviorists have theorized that thunder storm phobia arises from a hearing impairment, a trauma, or a biochemical imbalance. Nicholas Dodman, the head of the behavior clinic at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, speculates in his book “Dogs Behaving Badly, an A-Z Guide for Understanding and Curing Problem Behaviors in Dogs” that dogs who fear thunder somehow become charged with static electricity. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the coats of some dogs may build up an electrical charge and then discharge at random giving the dog small shocks. Many t-storm phobic dogs can be found curled up behind the toilet, in the tub, or on tile floors – all surfaces that “ground”. “Thunder-shirts,” available at most pet stores, are worth a try.

Loud booming noise is certainly a factor, however the genuine storm phobic dog has fears triggered by more than just a loud crash of thunder. Often dogs are aware of an impending weather change well before the barometer drops or the trick knee begins to twitch. As the sky darkens and the first drops of rain begin to fall, the storm inside the terrified dog is already racing in time with his pounding heart. Storm phobia is a runaway train that can be nearly impossible to derail.

Behavioral treatment for thunderstorm phobias can take several different approaches:

Desensitization–Removing a dog from the full blast of stimuli to a quiet, sound-buffered place where storm noises and lightning flashes are less prevalent may help. In this place of lower intensity emotion, with the stimuli still present but at a lower intensity (with resulting fear also at a lower intensity) counter conditioning can be attempted:

Counter-Conditioning–offering food rewards and changing the dogs emotional state, while still in the presence of a smaller dose of the frightening stimuli, can help decrease the dog’s fear (classical conditioning.) However it won’t work if the dog’s feelings of fear are greater than its interest in the food.

Modeling–Petting and comforting your dog may make her feel better, but if you seem overly concerned, even if the source of your concern is actually your dog’s fearfulness–you may be confirming there really is something to be afraid of. Remaining sympathetic while demonstrating calm, unconcerned acceptance of the weather, and not reacting to each thunder clap with a gasp and worried glance at your dog, may provide some evidence that your are both going to be okay and “this too, shall pass.” Eating cheese and crackers, for example, every time there is a storm, can serve to gradually draw your dog’s attention out of the fearful state and facilitate more classical conditioning, building new associations between storms and desirable things that take the edge off.

Other treatment measures include:

Medications–drug and natural remedies help some dogs; check with your veterinarian Prevent static build-up–this from Dr. Dodman–mist the dog’s coat with water or rub a used fabric-softener sheet over their coats.

Provide a “storm shelter”–create a secure retreat, such as a closet (add a doggie door for self access and to prevent claustrophobia), or a crate in a darkened room. Dogs that become destructive must not be confined in a place where they can get hurt–the objective is to allow a sense of holing up, not to imprison the fearful dog. The more soundproof the area the better, and the addition of blocking noises–such as a loud radio or television can help mask some outside storm noises.

In the past I have advised pet owners avoid using overly sympathetic voices and coddling during thunder storms, out of a stated concern the dog’s “fear might be reinforced.” This was conceptually incorrect. Reinforcement increases the frequency of behaviors it follows. A dog’s fear of storms will not be increased because pet owners offer comfort. Modern dog training is based on solid research we all benefit from, and old ways give way to new methods that are both compassionate and effective without cruelty or unkindness. In the past I have advised pet owners not offer comfort to their dogs, but I am modifying my own advice to a more moderate stance. At the same time I stand by a concern that emotional support might be agreeing there is something to be afraid of, confirming there is a threat the dog needs to be protected from. A second concern is creating a dependency upon human comfort that will leave the dog in a deeper hole, with few intrinsic coping methods when no one is home to provide social shelter. Perhaps the most kind response is one of moderation; to offer love and care, petting and soothing, but to also “stay calm and carry on.”

Petting and emotionally comforting a storm-terrified dog is compassionate and provides social support to the dog. Creating safe places to hide enables dogs to self-comfort. Providing both kinds of care seems like the right way for a friend to behave. You will not increase your dog’s fear by comforting him.

(This article first appeared as an unedited version in DogWorld Magazine, Help the Canine mind, Peggy Moran 2002)


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