Why Are Dogs Afraid of Thunder?

Why are dogs afraid of thunderMy dog knows when a thunderstorm is coming long before I do.  Most commonly he hides behind the toilet (yes, he actually thinks his 70 lb body fits back there). We’re working on the issue.

But, the question remains, why are dogs afraid of thunder in the first place?

Well, due to dog’s keen senses they may experience a variety of things during a thunderstorm that go virtually undetected by us humans.

Discomfort may arise due to the barometric pressure changes, static electricity, high winds, and low-frequency rumbles.

Dog’s keen hearing allows them to hear things both above and below our auditory range; let’s face it, thunder is loud to the average human ear, so one can only imagine how loud it must be to a dog’s ears!

In addition, certain breeds appear to be genetically prone to thunderstorm phobia, possibly due to a genetic predisposition within their breed.

Reactions From a Dog with Thunderstorm Phobia

Some dogs may hide under a bed, refuse to eat, or appear to mope and become disengaged from all normal activities. Even though these things are more on the mild side, it doesn’t mean your pet isn’t suffering. So you should still work with him to reduce his stress.

Other dogs become so panicked by thunderstorms that they become destructive, chewing on doors, furniture, walls, or whatever else may be in their line of sight. They have also been known to wedge themselves into tiny places, sometimes getting stuck, in an attempt to hide.

A more serious reaction may include a flight response which is when a dog may feel the need to run from something they fear, or feel will bring harm to them. In this case dogs have been known to do some pretty crazy things such as jumping fences, or crashing through windows and running from their homes. As you can imagine, this can be pretty dangerous as they can injure themselves during escape attempts, get lost or worse yet, hit by a car in traffic.

The severity of fear in a dog with thunderstorm phobia can range from mild to severe, and as such each dog may require a unique type of intervention in which to help them cope.

What Can I Do To Ease My Dogs Fear?

Doing nothing can worsen the problem over time since fears can progressively get worse if left untreated. Experts will admit that a dog’s fear of thunderstorms can be quite difficult to reverse (but not always impossible!).  The key for treatment is to create an association between storms and something “good”. Here are several things that will help:

  • When a storm approaches, try to engage your dog in playtime. Remember, you are trying to associate storms with something good, so this can be a positive stimulus. You can also try to distract your dog from the storm by offering a special chew toy; make it something that you know would be considered extra special to your dog.
  • Another way you can associate thunder with “good” things is to offer a treat (again, something extra special) after each clap of thunder. In addition, you can calm him by petting him gently, just don’t over-do it as many specialists believe going overboard with cuddling may lead a dog to think the behavior is warranted, and what is expected.
  • Mask the sound of the outdoors by turning on music, or the TV.
  • Allow your dog to retreat into a place where he feels secure.  An interior room where lightning cannot be seen through a window, and thunder will not seem as loud, are good places.  Or, your dog’s crate (if he has one), but do NOT lock him in it!  He’ll soon start to associate storms with the negativity of being locked up and his fears can worsen.
  • Purchase a commercially sold “shirt” or “cape” sold specifically for the purpose of applying firm pressure to a dog and resulting in relief of stress during thunderstorms.  (I must admit, I thought this sounded a bit hokey when I first heard about it, but there have been actual “real” studies done on this showing it works.)
  • If your dog’s fear is on the extreme side to where he is panicked, panting, trying to escape, and becoming destructive, he may need medication. There is a new drug called Sileo which was formulated specifically for the purpose of calming, but not sedating, dogs with noise aversions. It is FDA approved, reportedly works quite well in the majority of dogs, and may certainly be worth asking your vet about.
  • Consider the help of a board certified animal behaviorist, or a dog trainer that specializes in helping dogs conquer fears.
  • Some dog owners have found success with a desensitization and counter-conditioning process. This is a process in which you gradually expose your dog to his fear (at a much lower level), and present him with something positive at the same time (such as treats). For example, you would simulate the sounds of a storm, via a recording, on a very low volume (that increases in time), and then present your dog with treats to reinforce, and counteract against his fear.  The idea is to get your dog excited about hearing storm sounds and get him associating it with “good” things.

Things To Remember

  • Avoid fear while trying to eliminate fear!  Your dog’s fear is “real”, and yelling at him or punishing him in any way will only make it worse.
  • The sooner you help your dog through his fears the better, since fears within dogs have a tendency to progressively get worse if not dealt with.
  • Desensitizing your dog of his fear can be difficult even for a highly trained professional.  If you find that you’re not having any success in alleviating the behavior, seek out help.

***FUN FACT:  Did you know that lightning strikes the earth approximately 8 million times per day?  (Don’t tell your dog!)


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