Thunderstorm & Firework Anxiety

Among the common behavior challenges we see in dogs, noise phobia ranks right up there at the top. It can be an extremely frustrating and difficult problem to manage.

Phobias are defined as persistent, irrational fears leading to a compelling desire to avoid the source of the fear. The reasons so many dogs react with fear to thunderstorms are, unfor
tunately, not well understood or known. There are, however, certainly many factors in play.

Typical Behaviors
We often tell dog owners the most common behaviors associated with thunderstorm phobia involve the three Ps” – pacing, panting, and pawing. Below are some other characteristic behaviors:

  • Trembling or shaking
  • Restlessness
  • Drooling
  • Seeking out humans – sitting close by, leaning or trying to climb on them
  • Barking, whining, or howling
  • Hiding in small places – under tables, behind chairs, in closets or bathrooms, in the bathtub
  • Destructiveness – chewing walls or furniture, clawing at drapes, “digging” at floors, scratching woodwork
  • Uncontrollable panic or anxiety, inability to stay in one place
  • Trying to escape – jumping through windows, digging out of yards, running away

The good news is that there is a whole host of possible ways to deal with thunderstorm phobia. The bad news is that figuring out which one or ones may work for your dog is largely a matter of trial and error. In many cases, a combination of techniques may be necessary to achieve any significant change in behavior.

1. Be Available
One of the most basic things you can do is try to be WITH your dog whenever storms are predicted or actually occur.

2. Change Your Dog’s Attitude and Perception
The two techniques generally employed are called counter conditioning and desensitization – they are closely related and often used hand-in-hand. You may be familiar with them from other training situations with your current dog or previous dogs; they have wide application for any number of canine behavior challenges.

Counter conditioning involves changing your dog’s emotional reaction to a scary or unpleasant experience. Somewhere along the line, a thunderphobic dog has learned to associate the sounds, sights, and sensations of a thunderstorm with something bad; they have become conditioned to think that storm = bad stuff. Thus, as a storm begins to brew, the dog’s anxiety automatically kicks in – it’s not something over which they have control. Our job is to reverse that association, i.e., to counter condition the dog to think that storm = good stuff. To do that, you pair the scary experience (the storm) with something the dog really likes or enjoys. You can feed him super tasty treats, play a favorite game in the house, dance around and sing (presuming that would be pleasant for your dog!), go for a car ride (if safe), or anything else that your dog typically enjoys. Partly you are distracting him from the storm, but more importantly you are teaching him that a storm predicts something fun or happy going on, not something scary.

Desensitization is the process of using repeated exposure to an object or experience to reduce or eliminate the fear associated with it. The fear-inducing object or experience must be presented in gradually increasing intensity over time, so the person or animal basically learns to “get used to it.“ For thunderstorm phobia in dogs, you can try using one of several commercially available CDs that simulate the sounds of a storm. You start out playing them at very low levels and increase the level slowly, often pairing the sound of the CD with something pleasant for your dog (i.e., using counter conditioning jointly). Unfortunately, using desensitization with thunderstorms is generally not as effective as it is with other kinds of fears, since the sound aspect of a storm is only one of the typical fear triggers. Nonetheless, here are some products you may want to try:

  • Canine Noise Phobia Series – Victoria Stillwell
  • CalmAudio – Sound Desensitization CD for Dogs
  • Sounds Good Audio CD – Legacy Canine Behavior and Training

Both counter conditioning and desensitization often require a lot of patience and commitment on the part of the owner as they don’t work overnight. Still, they can be fairly effective for dogs with mild to moderate thunderstorm anxiety. For dogs with severe anxiety, they are far less likely to make any significant impact. Give them a try, but keep your expectations realistic.

3. Modify the Inside Environment
Let’s face it, there’s not a lot you can do to change the fact that it’s storming. You can, however, modify the dog’s inside environment to minimize the effects of what’s happening outside. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Close curtains, blinds, or drapes to reduce the visual impact of the storm.
  • Turn lights on, especially if the storm is occurring at night.
  • Turn on the TV or radio (loudly) as a distraction or sound muffler.
  • Provide some “white noise” to mask the sounds of the storm – this could be a high speed fan or one of the commercially available white noise machines sold to help humans sleep. You can even download apps for your smart phone that create white noise. (Check or White Noise from TMSoft for two examples.)

4. Provide a “Safe Spot”
Many dogs seek out a small, out-of-the-way place on their own, and make a beeline for it as soon as a storm approaches. Often this is a bathroom, basement, walk-in closet, underneath a table, or behind a sofa. Some dogs seem to find comfort in being on porcelain surfaces, thus, inside a bathtub or curled around a toilet are common spots noise phobic dogs will retreat to.

Rather than discourage this behavior, do all you can to take advantage of it. Build on your dog’s natural instinct to find refuge by creating or enhancing a special safe haven. Ideally, this area should be one without windows or with covered windows. A basement area is often ideal, since there are few if any windows and it stays cooler in the summer. Remove anything in the “safe spot” that could be hazardous if knocked over by a frightened pooch and make sure the area is not so small or confined that the dog could get trapped – thus ending up more scared, rather than less.

Give the dog access to his “safe spot” at all times since a storm may easily come up while you are away. Stock the area with some soft blankets and a favorite toy or two…anything that will provide comfort and positive associations. A radio playing may add additional comfort. Encourage your dog to use it whenever a storm is brewing and see if it makes any difference.

5. Use Crates Cautiously
If your dog likes the security of a crate, consider putting one in the “safe spot” or another part of the house, but leave the door open so the dog can go in and out on its own. In general, being confined in a crate with the door closed leads to heightened anxiety in a thunderphobic dog and an attempt to break out. As with any of these options, what works for one dog may not work for another, so you will need to determine your individual dog’s reaction to being crated.

6. Experiment with Anxiety-Reducing Attire
A significant amount of evidence shows that anxious dogs may derive comfort from the sensation of being “swaddled,” much like a human baby does when wrapped in a blanket. Once again, this technique may or may not work for your dog since responses observed are very individual. Some owners report quite dramatic improvement; others see no real change.

The Thundershirt uses the same basic concept as swaddling (i.e., providing constant, comforting pressure around the dog’s body), but is made of a heavier fabric. The company’s website provides a wealth of information about ways to properly use the product for various types of situations that cause anxiety in dogs. (See their Training Center articles.)

7. Get a Prescription Medication from Your Vet
Many dogs can attain very significant relief with prescription medication, greatly increasing not only their quality of life, but that of their human family members as well. There are several medications currently used for thunderstorm phobia in dogs. Which is most appropriate for your dog will depend on his or her overall health, symptoms displayed, and severity of the problem. You will also want to take into consideration whether the medication needs to be given immediately preceding a storm (challenging if you are at work full time) or can be given daily on a preventive basis.


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