Many dogs become frightened or even panicked during thunderstorms. How to help if your dog’s one of them.
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.
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.
Does Comfort Zone Work?
There’s been a preliminary study of “dog-appeasing pheromone,” sold in pet supply stores under the brand name Comfort Zone. The diffuser releases an artificial version of substances secreted when a mother dog nurses. Nine out of 12 dogs treated with pheromone plus behavior modification in a preliminary study showed some improvement, as reported by the owners. These numbers are tiny; on the other hand, Comfort Zone is pretty cheap. I would try it.
Does the “Storm Defender” Work?
A newish product is the Storm Defender cape, lined with metallic lamé. This is less crazy than it sounds. A veterinary behaviorist at Tufts hypothesized some years ago that pain from static electricity may contribute to thunder phobia; the point of the lamé is to prevent static buildup. A brand-new study found that about 2/3 of dogs wearing Storm Defenders showed some improvement, according to their owners. But – and how baffling is this? – so did about 2/3 of dogs wearing fake Storm Defenders, which looked like the real ones but minus the lamé. That might be the placebo effect at work. Or maybe the owners’ body language changed and in turn changed the dogs’ behavior. Or maybe it just helps dogs to wear a cape during storms.
The Treatment Will Depend on the Dog
While you’re dressing your dog up and giving him anti-anxiety meds, cut out as many features of the storm as you can. Draw curtains, close windows, turn on the A/C or play soft music. If your dog wants to hide in the bathroom or sit next to you, let her. Debate rages over the effect of comforting your dog by petting and talking to her. The attitude that you and your dog have to be tough guys is laughable, or sad, but maybe your voice and touch do reward fearful behavior. On the other hand, a calm, encouraging friend can help us through an anxious hour. I believe the right response is the one that’s right for you and your dog.
Often, with behavior problems, cure is elusive but improvement lies in reach. For references to the studies I’ve cited, see the bottom of this page. Call me with your questions and comments at 206-600-5661 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s all for now, and thanks for listening.