Is your pet stressed during thunderstorms? Here's how to help

DETROIT – I love the beginning of summer, don’t you?  The trees are green, the flowers are in bloom, you can finally get outside and play… and in my house a very large, 90-pound Doberman tries to bury himself in my lap at the slightest suggestion of a thunderstorm. 

Yep, my “big, scary-looking” dog, Rogue, is afraid of thunder and tries to hide from it by crawling ON the closest person he can find.  It is not exactly a comfortable way to ride out a storm, but I blame myself.

Rogue is four and a half years old and we never really noticed any reaction to storms or fireworks or loud noises of any kind (except for the vacuum cleaner). Why this is happening now, is hard to tell. Maybe something REALLY scary happened at the same time a storm was brewing, we weren’t home, and now he associates storms with that scary thing. Or, maybe (and more likely) he’s always been a tad concerned and we didn’t notice; allowing the fear to build over the years.  Either way, I know better and should have started from day one helping to ensure Rogue was prepared to ward off any potential thunderstorm phobias.

Really, prevention is what it’s all about.  Preventative training is exactly the same as making sure your dog has his appropriate vaccines.  You vaccinate to prevent your dog from getting sick, right? We should all be just as diligent in providing our dogs with training to help prevent them from developing bad habits and/or fears.

To help prevent thunder phobia – in dogs who don’t already demonstrate a fear of them – there is just one trick.  MAKE SURE GREAT THINGS HAPPEN WHEN A STORM IS COMING/WHEN THUNDER HAPPENS.  It’s that easy.  When a storm’s rolling in, or whenever thunder crashes – toss your dog a tasty treat. Or, grab your dog’s favorite toy and play a great game for a bit. If your dog loves being petted and cuddled, DO THAT. If every time (or most of the time) thunder booms, great things happen for your dog, chances of him becoming thunder phobic are greatly reduced.

Now…for the rest of us - those of us who have dogs who are obviously afraid of thunder.

Fear comes in different “degrees.”  My dog is still able to think, follow basic commands and will take treats during a storm.  He’s scared, but I can distract him.  Other dogs are so panicked they hide, shake, drool, refuse food, and some even escape from their homes and families in an attempt to outrun their fear.

The plan for helping dogs with thunder phobia differs based on the severity of your dog’s fear.  Following is a list of things to try – the success of each suggestion is really based on your dog (and you!).

1) Help your dog.  When Rogue gets scared and climbs into my lap I hug him and tell him it’ll be ok.  Years ago I was told NOT to “baby” my dog during storms because I would be rewarding his negative behavior.  I don’t buy that logic anymore. Fears are irrational and I can’t think of any dog (or person!) who would overcome a fear by being told to just “buck up and power through it.” 

2) Make the good stuff happen – yep, keep doing that.  Currently, when the thunder crashes I sit with a bag o’terrific treats. Thunder booms, I toss a treat to Rogue, thunder booms, I toss – repeat, repeat, repeat. If treats aren’t your dog’s thing …toss a toy, play tug …whatever your dog loves to do or eat!

3) Practice when it’s easy. There are actually thunderstorm recordings available online.  During a nice day – play the thunderstorm sounds at a volume low enough for your dog to notice…but not be upset by it.  As the low-level thunder crashes; treat, hug, play.  When your dog starts to look forward to the low-level sound of thunder (he hears the thunder and looks to you for a treat, wags his tail in anticipation of game, or may even bring you a toy!), SLOWLY increase the volume and continue treating/hugging/playing.  Eventually you can work up to the volume of “real” thunder.  This is great for dogs who are too scared to take treats when a true thunder storm happens.

4) Some dogs react more to the change in atmosphere than the thunder itself.  One home remedy that is purported to help includes rubbing a Bounce-type fabric softener sheet “backwards” along your dog’s coat.  This supposedly cuts down on any static electricity (little shocks) your dog may feel close to his skin.  I’m not sure it works, but if it does – EASY.

Other dogs benefit from the application of constant, gentle pressure – an ongoing “hug” of sorts.  The theory is very similar to that of swaddling an infant.  Thundershirt is one type of product designed to apply appropriate, constant pressure to dogs in an effort to relieve stress.  Some folks have also had success using a child’s t-shirt that’s just a tad small, and placing it on their dog to provide just the right amount of pressure.

5) If your dog wants to hide – let him.  It’s not uncommon for dogs to want to hide in an attempt to escape what scares them.  Allowing them to find a place of comfort to ride out the storm is a-okay.  Certainly, you’ll want to be sure their chosen hiding place is safe – many dogs find solace behind a toilet or even in an empty bath tub.  Dogs who are properly crate trained – are comfortable in their crate – may seek to “hide” there as well.  Be sure to keep those safe hiding places accessible in case your dog seeks comfort there.

6) Essential oils can help take the edge off.  They seem to be more beneficial for dogs with milder cases of anxiety…but either way, they make your house smell great.  Lavender is one of the most popular calming scents – consult with an expert to determine the most appropriate use for your situation. I use a diffuser when I’m going to be gone and there’s a threat of storms.

7) Consult your veterinarian.  For some dogs, the anxiety is intense and they can react in ways that are unsafe.  I’ve known dogs with severe thunder phobia who have jumped out second story windows, broken through screen doors and have been hit by cars in their panic to escape the thunder.  If you are concerned about your dog’s thunder phobia, talk to your veterinarian.  You may decide to use medication to help ease your pet’s anxiety.

So as we step into summer, with its beautiful days and occasional thunderstorms, I wish you peace.  Now, I’m going to stream my “Sounds of Nature – Thunderstorms” recording while I feed Rogue his dinner.  And when he’s finished eating, I’ll turn the recording off.  Every little bit helps!