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Dogs and Thunderstorms

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

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

There aren’t any published studies of behavior modification alone, though, so my statements are based on my impressions and those of other behavior consultants. Few interventions for thunder phobia have been studied scientifically, few or no studies have been repeated, and what studies there are include only small numbers of dogs. Still, they offer the best information we have.

Treat Thunderstorm Worry with “Play Therapy”

Say your dog is only mildly anxious, maybe a little restless, before and during storms. He responds to your cues, he’ll eat, and he doesn’t shake, salivate, or try to hide. If he also has a game that he just loves, try a fix of play. The minute you’re aware that a storm is coming, bring out the ball or the tug toy. If you throw a play party whenever there’s a storm, your dog may learn that storms predict good times.

Behavior Modification Plus Medication

But you won’t always be home when a storm comes, and every episode of anxiety makes it likelier the anxiety will worsen. So if you don’t see clear improvement after a couple of storms, or if your dog is highly anxious,  go to the intervention I recommend for almost all thunderphobic dogs: the gradual exposure and treats of counterconditioning and desensitization plus anti-anxiety medications prescribed by your vet. When this one-two punch was studied, 30 of 32 dogs improved at least somewhat. Two people in the study reported that their dog’s storm phobia was gone. At a four-month follow-up, the improvements had held. You’ll notice these results aren’t spectacular -- though most dogs improved, almost none seem to have been “cured.”

You may see melatonin recommended for thunder phobia. Many people, including me, have the impression that it helps their dogs, but whoops, no scientific studies exist. Melatonin may be worth trying; talk to your vet first, of course.

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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).