So far this spring, the weather has been rough here in Colorado with tornados, thunderstorms, hail and lightning. As we write this, yet another hailstorm is in progress. All of this is stressful for us to endure, but it can also be hard on our canine companions. Fear of thunderstorms is a common problem for dogs. It’s clear many dogs are afraid of the sound of thunder, but others seem to be distressed by other elements such as wind, rain, and even cloudy skies.
For some dogs the fear verges on panic, with dogs clawing or pawing to get out of the house (or into it if they are outside), destroying objects, house soiling and barking or howling. Others are less demonstrative and instead hide, shake, drool and pace in their distress.
It’s not clear why some dogs develop these fears and others don’t. For some it seems as if enduring one or more bad storms causes the fear to develop. For others, there is a gradual onset over months or years with no single triggering event.
Our dog Coral was never bothered by thunderstorms until two years ago, when she turned eight. It seems to be worse this season, we believe because this is our first summer in a new house and because of the increase in storm frequency. In our previous home, if home alone during a storm, Coral would take herself to the basement, where the noise and lightning flashes were less noticeable . The basement in our new house is still full of boxes, and isn’t really living space yet. Instead, Coral has taken to moving objects out of the closet, or more recently the laundry room, in an apparent attempt to create a safe hiding place.
When we are home, she seeks us out, and wants to be under our desks or in physical contact with us – between or against or legs, asking to be petted.
Behavior modification for thunder phobia is difficult, because it requires controlled, less intense presentations of realistic sounds of thunder in a procedure called desensitization. This is logistically difficult if not impossible. To make things worse, it’s just not possible to recreate some elements of the storms dogs are afraid of. Short-term anti-anxiety medication, prescribed by your veterinarian, is sometimes required so dogs don’t hurt themselves or cause extensive damage to your house.
We aren’t yet at the point of medication with Coral, but we are working hard to manage her behavior and do what we can to lessen her fear during a storm. Sometimes just giving your dog access to a quiet secluded part of the house can help. For other dogs, being able to sit with a family member helps to reduce the symptoms.
You may have been cautioned against paying attention to or coddling your dog when she’s afraid as this will “reward her fear”. Generally speaking, fears cannot be made worse by attending to, or comforting a fearful dog. And ignoring your dog or even trying to punish her for the behavior can make her fear worse.
Emotional behavior just isn’t learned in the same way as many other behaviors. Let’s take an analogy. Suppose your grandchild is having a nightmare. What is your response? Do you ignore the terrified child because you think any attention from you will make him more afraid after his dream?
Many of us would not. Instead, many of us would comfort the child, soothe him, and try to relieve the distress. Generally your comforting probably wouldn’t make him more afraid, encourage fearful behaviors, or make the nightmares more frequent.
So if it makes your dog more comfortable to lie next to you during thunderstorms, consider letting her do it. Doing so may relieve some of her distress.
Your dog is not capable of “faking” being afraid to get your attention. If dogs don’t feel afraid, they don’t act afraid. Your grandchild might try putting on some drama for extra attention. BUT you can easily tell the difference between real fright and drama. And, chances are you give your grandchild so much love and affection anyway, there is no need to pretend.
You can help your dog through thunderstorm season by creating hiding places that will help her feel safe, talking to your veterinarian about the possibility of medication, and providing loving comfort to help her cope, stay calm, and carry on!
Dr. Suzanne Hetts and her husband Dr. Dan Estep are Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists. They provide professional behavior education services online, and resources to prevent and resolve pet behavior problems to both pet pros and pet owners. Coral, their diva-dog Irish setter provides daily inspiration. www.AnimalBehaviorAssociates.com,