Why do certain dogs become fearful of loud noises such as thunder and fireworks, but others remain unruffled? Nobody’s completely sure. In some cases, puppyhood trauma (such as being tied up outside for long intervals) may have something to do with it. Some owners claim that specific breed temperaments may play a role, and in other cases, sensitive hearing or separation anxiety may contribute. What’s certain is that for some canines, a minor case of nerves can escalate into a full-blown phobia — an excessively panicked, irrational, chronic fear response.
Since the day we adopted our rescue pup, Grant, we’ve been dealing with this kind of phobia on a regular basis. Like many dogs who struggle with unexplained thunder phobia, Grant seems unusually sensitive to any storm-related occurrence, such as changes in barometric pressure. Once the rumbles begin, his anxiety rapidly escalates into overwhelming terror. So, for us, it’s especially unfortunate that summer’s humid conditions can produce some of the biggest storms of the year.
Signs of a thunder phobia can include hiding, urinating, excessive panting, drooling, trembling, whining, eye-rolling, and/or frantic efforts to escape. If you’re Grant, they include all of the above … and some of his escape efforts have led to painful injury. The cruel irony is that if we, as owners, fawn over Grant or try to over-comfort him, we’re essentially reinforcing his panic behavior. A dog often interprets this pronounced reassurance as confirmation that the event taking place truly is worthy of panic.
There’s no guarantee that you can ever fully resolve your dog’s thunder phobia. But there are ways that you can manage it effectively. Here are six strategies that have worked especially well for us:
If you remember nothing else, remember this: Constant petting or consoling is often interpreted by pets as a reward for the fearful response — or reinforcement that the fearful response is warranted. Conversely, punishment will only increase a panicked pet’s anxiety level. Our solution? Projecting a calm, cool vibe and giving Grant attention in the form of playing, grooming, or other activities he normally enjoys.
Not to state this too strongly, but the Thundershirt is a miracle. This snug garment (available online or at most pet-supply stores) attaches around Grant’s body with Velcro and produces a “swaddling” effect that calms down his panicked panting. It often begins working within minutes, and on a few occasions Grant has actually drifted off to sleep (yes!). Complementary therapies we sometimes use include Rescue Remedy, which is based on calming Bach flower essences, and Ark Naturals Happy Traveler, a botanically based chew that can produce a calming effect. You can also try calming essential oils or pheromones, such as the canine-calming pheromone DAP. This can be found in Comfort Zone products.
Changing your pet’s location can be surprisingly effective, because it may help reduce the storm’s volume level or make your pet less aware of it. Grant, for instance, likes to hang out on the bathroom rug with the overhead fan droning away whenever it storms outside. This creates a “white noise” that blocks out the sounds that disturb him.
Allowing your pet access to the basement, or a room without windows, may have a similar effect. Some pups find that a closet or the area under the bed feels especially safe and secure. If your pet heads for his crate, try covering it with a blanket to increase feelings of security. However, keep the crate door open so your pet won’t feel confined (which can dramatically increase anxiety).
When thunderstorms are predicted, we try to take Grant for a few extra walks before the clouds roll in. This helps to tire him both mentally and physically. Many vets claim that it can also boost natural serotonin levels, which then act as a natural calming aid.
This fancy behavioral term simply means we help Grant to associate something negative (the thunderstorm) with something positive. For example, we keep Grant’s all-time favorite toy hidden away and bring it out to play when he begins to feel nervous about an approaching storm. We’ll sometimes feed him an extra-special treat during these times, as well, such as a small piece of bacon or cheese. This diverts his focus, and enjoying the treat/toy during the storm has gradually helped to recondition his response.
We practice this during the off-season for thunderstorms, usually over the winter. To begin, simply play a CD or iPod mix of storm sounds at an extremely soft level. While your dog remains relaxed at this level, say a simple cue word like “chill” and provide a yummy treat every 15 seconds or so. Then, gradually extend the time your pet needs to remain relaxed before earning the treat.
Once your pup can remain relaxed on command, increase the volume a single notch and repeat the process. If at any time your pet shows pronounced fear or panic, go back to the previous volume level, say the cue word, and reward for staying calm. When an actual storm takes place, continue using this same cue/reward system.
Grant exhibits a fairly intense fear response when it comes to thunderstorms. The good news is we’ve managed to help him cope without resorting to the use of pharmaceuticals. If none of these approaches work for you, a candid conversation with your vet might be warranted. In extreme cases, there are medications that can help keep your pup comfortable. But take a cue from Grant — a little dedication and ingenuity from you may be all that’s necessary to help your canine cope successfully!
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About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.