Thunderstorm phobia is a common fear I address in dog training. Countless canines suffer every year when summer storm season hits. Symptoms of fear include panting, pacing, increased salivation, whining, shaking, hyper vigilance, looking overly sleepy, lip licking, furrowed brows, the whites of their eyes showing and shadowing their owner or attempting to hide or flee. Although the external signs of fear vary amongst individual dogs, the internal state of distress the dog experiences cannot be ignored.
While logically there’s little danger involved for a dog kept indoors during a lightning storm, there’s no reasoning a canine out of their fear. The fear is very real to that dog, and without intervention, the fear not only remains for most dogs, but grows stronger with time. Fear is a motivator in the natural survival response for the animal to move themselves away from a perceived threat and into a safe place. Dogs are wired to avoid dangerous situations and flee danger for self-preservation. Loud booms and flashes of light are two such stimulus’ that dogs are wired to flee from, rather than run to, for survival. There is also the likelihood of a genetic influence, as studies have shown that certain tendencies, such as fear of numerous noises and separation anxiety, are linked to the fear of thunderstorms.
Ongoing fear decreases a dog’s quality of life and impacts even internal functions, like debilitating their body’s immune system. Dogs are also at risk for injury or worse when they panic, as they may hurt themselves when attempting to escape or when running in a blind panic. It’s not only traumatic for a dog to experience ongoing fear, but it’s stressful to the pet parent who feels helpless to calm their pet.
Though our dogs can’t help the fearful state they’re naturally in with thunderstorms, as loving pet parents, we have the ability to help our pets. Dogs don’t need to suffer needlessly. With just a few changes, a dog’s fear of thunderstorms can be drastically decreased or taken away all together.
Here are the top recommendations I offer to pet parents when training their dog to relax during storms.
The first tool I recommend to owners is the ThunderShirt. The ThunderShirt is essential, as it instantly calms the dog in a non-invasive manner. The gentle pressure of the ThunderShirt increases feel good endorphins and is similar to the comfort a baby experiences when swaddled. Pressure has a calming effect on animals, as made famous by Temple Grahndin in her work of transferring the calming effects of pressure on cattle to other uses, such as decreasing anxiety for people with autism. The effects of pressure have likewise been shown to calm dogs.
The ThunderShirt is essential, because the wrap has immediate results for calming the dog with no prior training needed. The ThunderShirt works in about 80% of canines, thus it’s the most effective and natural tool to decrease anxiety in dogs. If the dog is in an overly panicked state, other methods may be used to no avail when a storm hits, because the dog is already so over threshold, they are not receptive to reinforcement. When dogs are panicked, even activities they would normally do without hesitation, such as eating a treat or playing with a ball are denied, because the dog is too fearful to respond. Fear also inhibits learning; with animals most receptive to learning when they are in a relaxed state. The ThunderShirt is my go-to tool as it calms a dog and brings them to an emotional state where they are receptive to learning and can receive rewards to help build a positive association with the storm.
Once the dog’s emotional state has been brought to a better baseline, there are additional tactics I use. One of my favorite solutions is to create a thunder room in the house. A thunder room should have the feeling of a hide-away where the dog can escape to and should be somewhat insulated from outside noise. A roomy closet or bathroom is ideal. Static electricity may build up in a dog’s coat during a storm, thus keeping the dog on hard floors rather than carpet and using dryer sheets to rub over the dog’s fur is helpful. Music can be calming for dogs and drowns out noise. For best results, play music loud enough to drown out some of the booms from the thunder, with classical music shown to have the greatest relaxation effect. The blinds should also be kept closed in the house, as flashes of light can be frightening for canines if they happen to catch a glimpse.
Your dog should also be given training to associate the storm with good things happening to change their emotional baseline. For a play focused dog that enjoys fetch or structured tug, start a game as soon as the storm hits and continue throughout. Keep in mind you may want to play these games inside while sheltered from the elements and the loud noise. For other dogs, the storm should be associated with delectable treats. Each time the thunder hits, immediately deliver a piece of high value reward, such as boiled chicken or turkey hotdog. You can also use the storm to refocus your dog on another activity they deeply enjoy, such as trick training or giving them a stuffed food puzzle. Another less thought of but effective tool is to get a dog into a different state by triggering a behavior that’s innate in a dog. Use a chase toy, such as a fishing pole with a toy on the end to get your dog involved in a game of chase, or even race off a few steps yourself and reward your dog with a treat for following. You can also howl or bark, potentially triggering other dogs in your household if present, and starting a group howl. The chase or howl may break the cycle of fear even for a moment as a different area of the brain is engaged, where at that point the dog can be refocused onto another activity, such as eating their tasty treats.
In addition, consider daily exercise for your dog as it boosts serotonin levels, a regulator of mood, and releases other feel good endorphins that build a dog’s resiliency. Exercise also provides a productive outlet for pent up energy that will help a dog relax more during the rest of their day. During the summer, dogs should be exercised regularly during the cool parts of the day with the amount of exercise needed depending upon the dog’s age, breed and energy level. Dogs should be exercised preemptively before a storm hits.