The thunder booms and the dog dives under the bed. It booms again and the dog runs from under the bed into the bathroom. Another shaker blasts and the dog runs back under the bed from the bathroom. Panting, eyes glazed and staring, the poor dog is beside himself with fear over what we consider a great light show. Why are so many dogs scared of thunder? And what do you do when your dog is scared of thunder?
Why is a Dog Scared of Thunder?
Not all dogs are scared of thunder and lightning but for those that are, each storm brings with a maelstrom of stress and anxiety . Why is a dog scared of thunder and lightning?
To a dog, loud and sudden noises have no point of reference – they just happen for no apparent reason. Small children are often scared of thunder for the same reason, which is why there are many different ‘wives’ tales’ to explain away their fear. Unfortunately, there is no way to do the same for a dog.
At no time during a thunder and lightning storm should a dog be left outside or taken outside to relieve himself or herself without you and a secure leash ! A dog’s first reaction to a thunderclap is to escape, making a dog bolt in fear. Many dogs are lost each year during thunderstorms and although many are found, a good portion of them are injured or killed in their panic-driven run for cover. Always guard doors, keep windows closed, and take your dog out on a leash during storms to ensure their health and safety.
Steps to Take to Calm a Dog that is Scared of Thunder
Part of how stressed a dog becomes during a thunderstorm is the anticipation of the noise. Dogs sense the environmental disturbances long before the storm is actually audible to their sensitive ears and long before we can hear it. Because of this early warning system, their anxiety has time to grow before the storm actually hits the area.
Since humans are capable of watching the weather radar either on TV or the internet, we can be forewarned of when a storm is going to hit. A couple of hours before the storm is expected to be anywhere near your area, take your dog for a long walk or exercise session so that they are physically tired. Exercise works to reduce stress levels in dogs much like it does in humans and a tired pooch is almost always a calmer pooch.
While the storm is still a long ways away, turn on the TV or radio and gradually increase the volume. This will help drown out the sound of the thunder and hopefully if the storm path is not too close to your house, may work to lessen the impact of the storm altogether.
Distracting your dog during a storm can also help as long as their fear levels are not too high. Close the curtains, keep the volume of the radio or TV up, and have a game of indoor fetch with your dog. Or give him a chew or bone to work right before the storm becomes louder then the TV. Another game that keeps a dog busy is tug-of-war and focused on something other then the storm.
If the storm hits with a vengeance and background noise, darkened rooms, and distraction are no longer working, the next step is to build a ‘safe’ place for your dog. Interior bathrooms and closets are a common place for a dog to hide as the lack of windows hides the lightning strikes and muffles the sound. If your dog chooses the bathroom as his safe place, turn on the overhead fan to further drown out the thunder and make sure there is nothing the dog can get into that could harm him i.e. medicine, razors, cleaners, etc are all put away safely.
Depending on where the closet is located, turn on near by fans, radio or TV to muffle the thunder. Again, look for any potential harmful items in the closet and put up any valuable shoes, belts, and slippers that your dog may damage.
It is vital your dog can get out of their ‘safe’ place so make sure bathroom and closet doors remain open. The feeling of being trapped can heighten your dog’s anxiety even more, causing them to accidentally hurt themselves in an attempt to escape.
Between Storm Behavior Modification for a Dog Scared of Thunder
Although many people believe you can completely desensitize a dog to thunderstorms, if this were true, dogs that live in an area where thunder is common would not be concerned about the mêlée. Instead, dogs that have grown up and lived their entire lives in areas that have frequent thunderstorms can still be scared of thunder.
However, desensitization does work to a degree. There are CDs you can buy that replicate the sounds of a storm or you can make your own by recording the sound of firecrackers going off.
To desensitize your dog:
- Begin playing the recording at a low volume after the dog has been well exercised – feed her, play with her, give her a treat if she is not acting fearful or play a favorite game.
- During the following session, turn the volume up a level and feed or distract in some way
- Each session, increase the volume marginally, allowing her to adjust to the louder storm sounds. Do not increase the volume until she seems completely relaxed with the level and either ignores the sounds entirely or is aware of the commotion but is not bothered or stressed by it. This may take several weeks or even months depending on the severity of the fear.
- If at any time the dog does begin to display fear or anxiety, turn off the recording immediately and give her a break. At the next session, turn the volume down until she no longer reacts and start over.
Talk to your veterinarian about the process of desensitizing your pet to thunder and lightning. There are medications available that help to decrease canine anxiety, allowing the desensitizing process to progress faster and with less stress for both you and your dog! These canine anti-anxiety/anti-depressants are not a quick sedative but take weeks to work at peak efficacy. However, once they begin to work, behavior modification progresses as a faster pace with less speed bumps.
What to do When Your Dog is Scared of Thunder and You have tried Everything
Some dogs that have suffered a traumatic event in conjunction with loud sounds may never fully recover from the experience no matter how hard you try. This can mean they are so miserable that they are a danger to themselves or others during a thunderstorm or fireworks display. Or sometimes there is one dog in a multi-dog household that is the instigator and before long dogs that were once calm during thunderstorms are acting fearful.
If everything has been done for the dog that is scared of thunder including seeking the help of an animal behaviorist, retraining and behavior modification, and you have consulted with your veterinarian, the most humane course of action is sedating the pet during thunderstorms and fireworks displays. Although this may seem extreme, imagine the fear your beloved pet during these storms and how awful it must be for them. Sedation would only be a last resort.
If your dog is scared of thunder, there are avenues of treatment to help him over his fear. It can take time but through behavior modification, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.