Dogs and Thunderstorms

Many dogs become frightened or even panicked during thunderstorms. How to help if your dog’s one of them.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #21

For many dogs, thunderstorms mean fear and trembling -- for the unluckiest dogs, they mean outright panic. This week, thunderstorm phobia – why it’s so common, and which treatments may help.

Why Are Dogs Afraid of Thunderstorms?

Why thunderstorm phobia? The best answer may be “Why not?” All animals learn certain fears more readily than others -- many people are afraid of snakes, not many of postcards. Probably, evolutionary history primes organisms to learn to fear things that can harm them. Storms are dangerous: getting wet can lead to hypothermia; heavy rains can cause flash floods; and there’s always the chance of being struck by lightning. A quick escape to shelter ups the odds of surviving to reproduce. And the startle response to sudden, loud bangs is probably inborn. Outright phobia of thunderstorms is the extreme case of a behavior that makes evolutionary sense. Unfortunately, such phobias are not only easy to develop, they’re hard to shake.

How Do You Treat Your Dog’s Thunderstorm Fear?

The standard therapy for fears is counterconditioning and desensitization. You start desensitization by exposing your learner to the frightening stimulus in its mildest possible form. A human who’s terrified of flying might look at a picture of a plane. For dogs, we usually countercondition by pairing the scary thing with a super-special treat. When the dog learns that a mild form of the scary thing reliably predicts the deluxe treat, she starts acting pleased by the scary thing. The trainer increases the scary thing’s intensity bit by bit, always waiting for the dog to look relaxed and happy before the next step.

The Challenges of Treating Your Dog’s Thunderstorm Fear

With thunderstorms, two factors may undermine success. First, counterconditioning and desensitization largely depend on avoiding random exposures to the scary thing. If you can control thunderstorms, a lot of dog behavior folks would love to hear from you. Second, a thunderstorm isn’t just one thing. It includes a darkening sky; humid air; the smell of ozone; changes in barometric pressure; wind and rain; lightning; and thunder, including thunder so distant humans can’t hear it. We can, sort of, replicate some of these, but not all -- and what we can’t replicate, we can’t work with systematically.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).