behavior modification for dogs who are scared of thunderstorms

Shaking, whining, panting and pacing are all signs of thunder phobia in dogs. Instead of dreading summer thunderstorms, find out how behavior modification can help your pooch cope with his anxiety.

Thunderstorms are a source of stress and anxiety in many dogs. They can cause some dogs to pant, pace, whine, tremble, hide, or become clingy. Others may have full-blown panic attacks, digging at doors and windows, eliminating inside the house, or even chewing on their own paws or tails.

How dogs develop thunder phobia

Although it’s hard to say for certain why dogs become scared of thunderstorms, we do know that many are stressed by loud noises they don’t understand, and thunder certainly fits into that category. In addition, because dogs are so much more sensitive than we are, they are more likely to be disturbed by changes in barometric pressure, along with the static electricity that occurs with thunderstorms. They may also start hearing thunder from an approaching storm long before we can. And since thunder follows lightning, those bright flashes can trigger an anxiety response on their own.

A 2001 online study of 69 dogs with thunderstorm phobia concluded that rescue dogs, herding breeds and hounds have higher rates of developing storm phobia. It’s estimated that 15% to 30% of dogs suffer from some type of storm anxiety.1 And 86% of dogs with thunder phobia develop separation anxiety.2

It’s estimated that 15% to 30% of dogs suffer from some type of storm anxiety.

A dog’s personality can also predict if he might become storm phobic. Fearful dogs who lack self-confidence and startle easily are more likely to develop behavioral problems such as storm phobia than confident, well-socialized dogs.

It’s also important to rule out medical conditions such as hypothyroid disease, arthritis, blindness, and Addison’s disease when addressing any behavior problem, including thunder phobia. All these conditions can affect a dog’s personality and stress levels.

Behavior modification and the thunder-phobic dog

Left untreated, storm phobia escalates over time. Even dogs with mild thunder anxiety should undergo a behavior modification program to help alleviate their stress and hopefully prevent the behavior from getting worse.

A good behavior modification program is based on introducing a stimulus in such a way that the dog does not have any anxiety, then providing him with something pleasant such as a treat or favorite game. This counter-conditioning teaches him that something positive will happen when presented with the stimulus. In other words, “Good things happen when x is present.”

The problem is, because we can’t control the weather, we can’t control how or when we introduce the stimulus of thunder, or its intensity or duration, making this particular behavior problem difficult to treat. Depending on where you live, a thunder-phobic dog will be beyond his comfort level on a regular basis during storm season. This means it’s easiest to start a behavior modification program during off-season, although implementing these steps at any time can help.

Step #1

The first step in teaching your dog that storms are okay, or at least bearable, is to make a list of any and all storm-related triggers that stress him. Think about what happens before or during a storm that elicits any kind of anxiety from your dog: thunder, barometric changes, lights flickering, dark skies, wind or rain.

Think about what happens before or during a storm that elicits any kind of anxiety from your dog: thunder, barometric changes, lights flickering, dark skies, wind or rain.

Step #2

Pair the above triggers with something extra special. I mean really extra special, something your finds valuable and that you usually save for training sessions. Pick one trigger for each training session. For example, set one of your household lights on a timer, and when the light goes off, immediately toss your dog a high-value treat. Another example is to set your outdoor sprinkler on low, and aim it to hit a small area of your house while you and your dog play one of his favorite games. For noises, search the internet for thunderstorm sounds and play the recordings too softly to frighten your dog, while providing a great food treat or game; over time, gradually increase the volume. Play these noises through your Smartphone and move it around the house, so the noise isn’t coming only from your computer area.

Step #3

Teach your dog how to relax when he’s not stressed, so you can tap into that calm emotion when he starts to feel anxious. First, think about where you and your dog will go during a thunderstorm. Where would you like to calmly sit or lie down with your dog during this time? In bed? On the sofa or floor? Ideally, it will be an area of the house that is more soundproofed from storms than others.

Next, either during off-season or on clear days with no stormy weather in the forecast, teach your dog to lie down in your chosen spot and enjoy a nice body massage while listening to a calming music track. I prefer to use the same track at each session so I can condition my dog that this particular song means we are relaxing. By practicing this at least three times a week, you will teach your dog how to be calm, not only during storms, but also his everyday life. Remember, dogs with thunder phobia tend to have stress-prone personalities to start with, so this relaxation is good for him.

essential oils for fear and anxiety in dogsCalming aids

Again, thunder phobia can be difficult to treat, especially if you start behavior modification during the height of storm season. I’ve personally lived through it with my own dog, and my heart still breaks when I work with clients whose dogs are afraid of storms. The good news is that there are several additional calming aids you can use to help ease your dog’s stress during a storm, although they must coincide with the behavior modification program.

Look into some natural anti-anxiety options. For thunder phobia, I prefer remedies that address panic.

  • I have had great success with flower essences, and they have no adverse side effects. Mimulus, Aspen or Rock Rose may be good choices.
  • Some companies offer essential oil blends specially formulated for stress relief. LifeFORCE Stress Relief Oral Spray can be sprayed directly into your dog’s mouth or water bowl to help re-balance his emotions and calm him down.
  • Homeopathic remedies are also generally safe and easy to use. Remedies to consider include Aconitum, Argentum nitricum and Phosphorus.
  • Other options include an anti-static jacket for your dog, white noise, pheromone therapy, and earmuffs.

When a storm does hit, help your dog by being there for him, both mentally and physically. A dog who is afraid of thunderstorms probably thinks the world is ending – he is not in his right mind. Take him to your safe spot, play your relaxing CD, and give him a light massage.

Thunder phobia in dogs is a serious behavioral problem that will worsen if not addressed. But don’t feel you have to tackle the issue alone. A good holistic vet and animal behaviorist can help your dog learn to be more relaxed during thunderstorm season. Together with the suggestions presented in this article, along with lots of patience and persistence, you can calm and defuse your dog’s fear of storms.

1“Thunderstorm phobia in dogs: an Internet survey of 69 cases”. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association,  37(4):pp. 319-324.

2Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, August 15, 2001, Vol. 219, No. 4, pp 467-473, doi: 10.2460/javma.2001.219.467.