Summer means increased thunderstorm activity across the country, and many dogs struggle when bad weather rolls in. Helping your companion overcome a thunderstorm phobia or anxiety can be a long process. Learn why dogs are scared of storms and try these tips to desensitize your dog to thunderstorms and soothe his weather-related anxiety.
Three Strategies for Keeping Your Anxious Dog Calm in a Storm
1. Take his mind off the storm.
You may be able to distract your dog if his storm-related fear is mild. If you know a storm is in the forecast, get in plenty of exercise before the weather turns. Go for a jog or play a few hearty rounds of fetch—he may be tired enough to sleep through the storm. When a storm rolls in, occupy your furry friend with fun games or special dog treats. Offer treats in exchange for easy tricks to create positive associations. When not even the tastiest snack can distract him from cowering, you may need to put a different plan into action.
2. Create a safe haven for him.
If your companion prefers to hunker down in a certain part of the house during a storm, turn it into his safe space. If he doesn’t have a preferred room, create an area for him. Behaviorists recommend rooms without carpet (which can hold static buildup) or large windows, such as a bathroom or basement. Allow your companion free access to this space at any time, not just when a storm is brewing. Offer treats, play games, and spend time together in the safe zone to create positive associations. If an unexpected storm blows in while you’re gone, your dog will know to seek out this space for comfort. During a storm, draw the curtains, cover the crate, and turn on a fan or AC unit for white noise. For extreme storm anxiety, soundproofing panels may dampen the noise further.
Tip: Leave the crate door open during a storm. Shutting your dog in may increase his anxiety.
3. Try a pressure wrap.
Anecdotal evidence suggests an anxiety wrap or vest can help ease anxiety during a storm. An anxiety wrap offers gentle, constant pressure that promotes a secure feeling. You can create your own dog anxiety wrap with an ace bandage, scarf, or T-shirt. Place the bandage across the front of your dog’s chest, then cross it up and over his shoulders to create an X above his shoulder blades. Pull the ends down and cross the bandage underneath his rib cage, then bring the ends upward and tie a knot above his lower back. The fit should be snug, but not tight. Practice this technique so your dog can acclimate to it. Don’t leave your dog unsupervised if he is wearing an anxiety wrap.
Why Are Dogs Afraid of Thunderstorms?
Thunderstorm phobia is common in dogs—one in six dogs experiences it according to Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. This anxiety ranges from mild to severe and often increases as dogs get older. Common fear responses to storms include hiding, running away, urination, destructive or harmful behaviors, panting, salivating, and barking. A surge of norepinephrine, which initiates the fight-or-flight response, can provoke dogs who opt for ‘flight’ to crash through windows or doors in an attempt to escape.
Many dogs who are afraid of storms also show signs of separation anxiety or noise aversion unrelated to foul weather, but this is not always the case. Dogs with noise sensitivities may react negatively to booming thunder, crackling lightning, driving rain, or howling winds, but there’s more to a storm than noise alone.
Changes in barometric pressure, increased static electricity, the scent on the air, and darkening skies may signal that a storm is on the way, which may trigger a dog’s natural instinct to seek shelter. Dogs may negatively associate these changes with a bad experience, too. The memory of a broken window or fallen tree during a previous storm may be the root of the anxiety.
Many owners note that their dogs take refuge in a bathtub or behind a toilet—potentially seeking out grounded areas where they are less likely to receive a static shock. Some experts believe this points to static buildup or even the association of a prior shock as one possible reason for canine storm anxiety. Rubbing your dog’s fur with an unscented dryer sheet may help discharge static electricity.
How Do You Desensitize a Dog With Thunderstorm Anxiety?
Acclimate your dog to stormy sounds.
To begin, play a recording of a thunderstorm at low volume and provide treats and praise for your dog’s relaxed behavior. With the sounds still playing, initiate a game or ask your dog to perform simple tricks. As he becomes comfortable with the sounds, gradually increase the volume of the recording, repeating the treats and praise routine. If he shows signs of anxiety, reduce the volume and try again. Eventually, he may learn to associate storm sounds with this positive experience.
A drawback to this technique: You may need to complete the same routine in each room of the house. And, while this method may help with noise aversion, there are other factors that contribute to storm anxiety it does not tackle.
Consider your own response to an approaching storm.
Do you rush through the house closing windows and turning off electronics? Are you nervous or stressed by the weather? Your dog may feed off these unintentional cues, which can raise his anxiety. Keep your cool, because your dog will notice—and learn from—your response.
Don’t punish your dog for storm-related behaviors.
Punishment for their reaction creates additional negative associations. But don’t coddle him: Reinforcing fearful behaviors during a storm can make them harder to change later on.
Training your dog to stay calm during a storm takes time. Because storm anxiety tends to increase with age, start the process at the first sign of a problem. Some storm phobia triggers are situation-specific, so desensitizing a dog to thunder may not be effective if the dog is also reacting to the wind, lightning, or static buildup.
Does My Dog Need Medication for Storm Anxiety?
Behavior modification and desensitization techniques may not work alone; some dogs require medication to treat storm anxiety. Speak with your veterinarian to see if an anti-anxiety medication, depression medication, or a combination may be suitable for your dog.
Dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP), a synthetic pheromone that mimics the chemical secreted by lactating dogs, is a non-medicated option to soothe storm fear. It comes in calming collars, plug-in wall diffusers, room sprays, and wipes, and some evidence suggests DAP may reduce fear-related behaviors in dogs.
Helping your dog overcome his fear of thunderstorms may require a combination of training—before, during, and after storms—as well as medication and non-medicated treatments. While these tips can help a dog feel more comfortable during nasty weather, it’s best to contact your veterinarian or trainer for specific recommendations.