Overcoming Thunderstorm Phobia

2003-Aug-23 - Toronto thunderstormThunderstorm phobia is a relatively common problem for dogs, particularly for those that live in areas where stormy weather is commonplace. Whether fear of thunderstorms is elicited by a singular traumatic experience or prolonged exposure, the result is often highly distressing for dogs and owners. Without extensive behavioral therapy and management strategies, phobias become deeply ingrained and even harder to overcome.

The intensity and frequency of big thunderstorms can be frightening enough for us humans, but some dogs are so traumatized they are unable to function normally for hours before and during a thunderstorm. Many thunderstorm-phobic dogs adopt self-management strategies in order to cope including attempts to escape from the home, digging into carpets, seeking out dark den-like spaces in which to hide, pacing, or crawling behind a bathroom sink or toilet.

What makes behavioral modification in these cases so difficult is that thunderstorms are not easy to predict or control. A dog usually knows that a storm is coming long before a human does and becomes increasingly panicked as it approaches.

The good news is that it is possible to change how a dog feels about storm noise by gradually exposing him to audio recordings of storm sounds at low volume levels and, if he appears relaxed, playing his favorite game or feeding him his favorite food. Allowing a dog to play and relax in the presence of the soft noise for short periods of time throughout the day ensures that he does not become bored with the training. Introducing the audio at low levels and gradually turning up the volume allows the dog to habituate to the noise without a fear response.


Noise De-Sensitization & Prevention

CNP-tstorms-frontWe have taken this process a step further by pairing clinically demonstrated psycho-acoustic calming music (the same kind of music used for dogs that suffer from separation anxiety) with gradually increasing levels of thunderstorm sound effects. This ground-breaking complement to sensory education from my Canine Noise Phobia Series helps dogs acclimate to thunderstorm sounds in a controlled environment. The recording is uniquely constructed to enable dogs to “tune out” the sounds of a thunderstorm. In addition to treating already-present thunderstorm phobias, this tool can also be used to prevent thunderstorm noise phobia and other noise sensitivities from ever developing.

The goal of this therapy is to change how a dog feels by altering the way he hears the sound. The Canine Noise Phobia Series noise desensitization series encourages nervous dogs to passively hear the noise rather than actively listen to it. For a dog, the end result is that even though he hears the sound of a thunderstorm, he is less bothered by it because it no longer overwhelms him.


De-Sensitization to Lightning Flashes

Gradually exposing a dog to flashes of light (by using the flash of a camera, but not in the dog’s face) that grow in intensity and using fans to simulate increasing wind are complementary parts of this therapy, but these can sometimes be harder to implement. Some dogs respond well to all of these tools during teaching sessions but may still become panicked when a real storm rolls in. It’s therefore important to tackle this phobia in other ways by using effective management strategies and masking any visual stimuli that elicit a fear response during a storm.


Barometric Pressure

Dogs can be very sensitive to changes in barometric pressure that occur before a storm, but it’s also possible that some dogs – especially long-coated breeds – become statically charged during a thunderstorm, receiving electric shocks from static in the air unless they “ground” themselves. It’s believed that dogs do this by retreating to a bathroom and hiding behind a sink or toilet, staying close to pipes that provide electrical grounding. If true, this would certainly explain why so many dogs end up cowering in a bathroom. To reduce static build-up, some owners wipe their dogs down with antistatic laundry strips and spray antistatic spray on their dogs’ paws, but care should be taken to avoid using products that contain harmful chemicals that dogs could lick off .


Other Therapies

Some phobic dogs benefit from chewing on a food-stuffed toy or calming therapies such as TTouch, anxiety wraps, pheromone collars, and lavender essence; others do much better on anti-anxiety medication that can be given just before a thunderstorm or by daily dosage, especially during storm season. It is vital that behavioral therapy and management are always implemented in tandem with any medication, to give the dog the best possible chance of rehabilitation.

The most important thing you can do for your thunderstorm-phobic dog is to provide him with a “bolt hole” – a place he can escape to in the event of a storm. Providing access to this safe place is essential at all times, particularly if you are absent. This could be a closet, bathroom, or basement (the best places usually have no windows), but with plenty of artificial light to mask flashes of lightning. If static electricity is a problem, rubber matting or tile is a good antistatic material to use for flooring. Specially designed psycho-acoustic music should be played close to the safe haven to mask the sounds of thunder. If you are present during the storm, spend time with your dog in the safe haven or give him attention if he comes to seek comfort. Far from reinforcing fearful behavior, your presence will help your dog cope – as long as you remain calm.

Thunderstorm phobia is a difficult condition to treat, but trying a variety of therapies and techniques can improve a dog’s ability to cope when the big clouds roll in.


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  • Frieda Thompson

    I have an 8 y/o Toy Fox Terrier who is very noise phobic. It began w/ thunder, but now he'll run to hide if a big truck rumbles by, or when the Dumpster is emptied! His favorite hiding place is behind the commode, but I shut that door b/c I'm afraid he'll be electrocuted there. (I grew up in N GA w/ lightning striking my Mama's cook stove several times!) I once tried to snuggle him, using my arms like a "Thunder-shirt, but he got so nervous he vomited on me. Poor fella! I appreciate your advice & will try it w/ him. Thank you very much!

    Frieda

  • Melissa

    I'm glad to know comforting my dog if she seeks me out during a thunderstorm is OK! I've heard the opposite, but have always comforted her - calmly, not overly "sorry for" her. It seems to help her even if she goes back to her storm spot.
    I think Zoe (a mini-Aussie) reacts to the subtle static charge in her coat, because her favorite places are on the tile floor, even if her cozy bed is nearby. Thundershirts don't help, anti-anxiety meds don't help. I'm going to try something anti-static on her coat, once I find something that's dog safe.
    Thank you again for the article, and for all you do on behalf of dogs and their people!
    Wishing you the best always,
    Melissa

  • sharon

    I have a friend of mine who has a dog that is totally terrified of thunderstorms. And she went out and bought her dog thunder shirt. it works great. And calms the dog down a lot. they even have it for cats now too. Some people I have seen take there dogs to the fire works on the 4th of July. the poor dog is so scared. And they do end up going home with the dog too. it is no place for them nor is it a place for a baby either and some take them there to. No animal or babies should be there. And thunder storms some people are terrified of them to and hide in the closet I knew a few. Maybe Victoria Idea will work for your pet but if not try thunder shirt.

  • Tonya Young

    We have tried all of these strategies for a year to no relief for our 32 pound Puggle(beagle/pug mix). Our male isnt bothered by storms, but our female gets so frightened that she shakes, her heart starts racing and she wont settle at all. We wrap her in a blanket and cuddle her and talk to her but we have even had to alter our schedules so if we even think a thunderstorm is coming , someone is home with her. When she gets this scared, our male tries to mount her as well. Please, is there anything else that we can try?

  • My poor Annie, a cocker mix, was absolutely terrified of storms. I once gave her a prescribed tranquilizer and she has a siezure that prompted a visit to the emergency clinic in the middle of the night. She got some relief from a Thundershirt and Rescue Remedy but, would hyperventilate and drool incessantly. It was so sad to watch her. Cuddling close just didn't do the trick. Poor thing has since passed away but I lived in fear of not being home when a storm rolled in. She was a young rescue dog and I often wondered if she had suffered some trauma before i gave her a home.
    Thanks for the article, sound therapy might have helped! Wish I'd known.
    Thanks, Nancy

  • JAN cANNADY

    Our 4 yr old male toy poodle wasn't afraid of storms until the 4th of July a few years ago. Next
    door they were setting off fire crackers, & he was traumaziied about holidays when this is
    donee, & now the STORMS. We use the Thundershirts, & I have to admit it helps a lot, but
    stilll he is trembleling. I hold him close as I can, as that seems to help. I know I am an adult
    & have a different opinion on fireworks than the younger generazation has, & even other
    adults. I feel for old people, sick people, babies that Mothers are trying to get to sleep,
    & for us dog owners, & what these fire crackers can do to any of them, along with the
    storms. We have no control over weather, & very little over these frightening, loud
    fireworks. SO, we do the best we can with our little Bogie, because he is our 4 legged
    fur baby, We adore him as other owners adore theirs.
    Thank You,
    Jan Cannady

  • My Shetland sheepdog senses when a storm is coming...we reside in south Florida and summer storms and hurricanes happen often. I have a Thundershirt but it doesn't help him...I have tried giving him a 1mg Melatonin, but it has no effect, When I am home, I prepare by going into my bedroom with him, turning the TV on the weather channel, and holding him, talking calmly to him and rubbing his ears . This helps him a lot. When he gets really uncontrollable I will give him 1/2 Benadryl. This allows his to get drowsy and he can sleep during the storm.
    He's definitely noise fearing, even watching TV, and the thunder is especially frightening to him. He's light sensitive also and watches for the lightning. My method of holding him and talking to him help and the Benadryl works fine. My Vet agrees with this method.
    Marolyn Seanor

  • Freddie seem to have a phobia of any loud noise not just thunderstorms. He has dry eyes so the eye drops from the vet is used any quick movement is also a concern He has diobetise that I have to give him a shot twice a day. He's a good dog loves people I've had him almost two years from the shelter, so any advise you can give me will be greatly appreciated.

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