Does your pooch bury his head into your side every time it thunders out? Does he dive under the bed whenever rain starts to fall? From your point of view, this may seem like cute and endearing behavior but it’s a sign that your dog is terrified of storms. Some owners are willing to simply put up with symptoms of storm phobias like hiding, trembling, whining, drooling and pacing. In more severe cases, panicking dogs have been known to chew furniture, tear drapes, break windows and cause themselves harm during thunderstorms. In either case, the behavior is a sign of a terrified, unhappy dog.
Storm phobias are one of the most common behavioral problems dog owners face but their cause is not entirely clear. Behaviorists are not yet sure what part of the storm frightens dogs most, whether they’re reacting to lightning flashes, the sound of thunder, wind blowing around the house or the sound of rain hitting the roof. Some dogs even start to pace and whine half an hour or more before a storm. They may be reacting to a sudden drop in air pressure, sounds of thunder that we can’t hear yet, or the electrical charge of the air.
Nature or nurture?
An article in the July/August 2001 issue of the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association describes an Internet survey of the owners of storm-phobic dogs. The authors discovered that some breeds may be predisposed to a fear of storms. Herding dogs, such as collies and German shepherds and hounds, such as beagles and basset hounds, seem to be more likely to develop a storm phobia than other dogs. The phobia is also common in sporting and working breeds. The study suggests that this tendency may be explained in terms of the dogs’ genetics. For example, herding dogs have been bred to react quickly to stimuli, but to not respond to their strong predatory drive. This means they have to suppress their natural tendencies which can lead to high levels of anxiety. It is speculated that herding dogs have a strong reaction to the startling noises and flashes of a storm, but they repress any aggressive response to it, causing anxiety.
The JAAHA study also showed that rescued dogs--dogs adopted from shelters or rescue organizations--may also be more likely to develop storm phobias. The article suggested that these dogs are more likely to have had less socialization or unpleasant, scary experiences prior to being adopted. They may have been abused or abandoned by a former owner or they may not have been exposed to a wide variety of sights and sounds. These kinds of early-life experiences can make dogs more anxious and prone to all kinds of phobias.
What to do?
Talking to your veterinarian is the first step to helping your pup overcome his thunderstorm fears. Your veterinarian can help you develop a program to gradually retrain your dog by gradually and gently helping him adjust to storms through behavior modification. Technically called "systematic desensitization," this procedure involves exposing the storm-phobic dog to some gentle reminders of a thunderstorm, such as a very soft tape recording of thunder or a flashing light. The dog is rewarded with lots of treats, attention and other positive reinforcement only if there is no evidence of anxiety. Over time, the intensity of the stimulus is increased and only calm behavior rewarded (get profession guidance, either from a veterinarian or a veterinary behavior specialist, before you begin this process). If you introduce frightening stimuli too quickly or don’t see signs of fear your dog may be showing, you could possibly end up making the phobia worse.
If gentle, patient retraining doesn’t help your pooch, there are some prescriptions that can. Your veterinarian can prescribe an anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication to help your dog remain calm during storms. You can also make sure your dog has a warm, safe "den" to retreat to when the weather gets too scary. Try padding a crate with blankets or clearing a space underneath your bed. Just make sure that it’s somewhere your pup can get out of whenever he wants. A panicked dog can do a lot of damage to his crate and himself if he’s confined.
It is very important that you remain calm when your dog is afraid. Don’t cuddle and reassure him, because it will reward his fearful behavior but don’t punish him for it either. Instead, just be calm and provide him with a safe, familiar place where he can feel secure and ride out the storm.