Knowing Dogs


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Help For Dogs with Thunderstorm Phobias

Have you ever experienced the sight of your dog frantically pacing, whining, or diving for cover the instant thunder rumbles in the distance? Or came home to find that the happy dog you left playing in the backyard this morning has injured himself, and damaged your home, digging and attempting to claw his way through a door to come inside? Or perhaps your dog simply plasters himself to your body, and trembles until a storm is over? Although this is a tough problem, there are definitely things you can do to help lessen your dog's fear and make storm season less traumatic on everyone.

No one has found one definite "cure" for storm phobias, despite the fact that animal behaviorists have studied this condition for decades. Complicating the issue is the fact that fear of thunderstorms can develop late in life, often manifesting itself for the first time when the dog is 7 or 8 years old. Perhaps older dogs experience some sort of pain when the barometric pressure drops, like an arthritic human being experiences when a storm is on the way. If your dog developed this phobia later in life, ask your veterinarian about supplements formulated to lessen the joint pain often seen in older dogs.

What can be done to help the storm-phobic pooch? Since there are many components to a storm (atmospheric changes, loud thunder, flashing lightning, hard rain pounding on the roof) it can be difficult to determine exactly what is triggering your dog's fear. A small percentage of dogs respond positively to noise desensitization techniques, such as playing with the dog and giving valued food rewards while being exposed to a recording of storm noises. The CD is initially played very softly, increasing the volume gradually during each training session as the dog becomes more comfortable. Unfortunately noise is only part of the issue, and it is almost impossible to duplicate things such as changes in barometer pressure. So unless you have the luxury of working at a research center that has a thunderstorm duplication chamber, you can only go so far with desensitization.

Dryer softener sheets?

Help reduce the possibility that static electricity is an issue by rubbing a dryer sheet, such as “Bounce™ lightly over your dog. Be sure to purchase the unscented variety. It is helpful to rub this on yourself as well, so you do not accidentally shock your dog when you touch him on a stormy day. Don't wait until the middle of a storm to use this tip, simply rub the dryer sheet lightly over your dog's fur every morning during thunderstorm season.

A safer environment

Be sure your dog is in a safe place if he must be left alone during a day when a storm is likely. Doggie daycare can be a good option during storm-prone months, especially if your dog cannot handle being in a comfy crate when you are away. If you do not have access to a good doggie daycare facility, then make friends with dog-loving neighbors, as they can be a life-saver if they are willing to help while you are at work.

Lower anxiety with exercise and supplements

Exercise and supplements are valuable in lowering anxiety of any type. During storm season, try increasing your dog’s daily exercise (and therefore his natural endorphin level, which will have a calming effect). Take your dog on a long walk in the morning before you leave for work. Make sure he is on a healthy diet, and consider adding calming supplements. Taurine is an amino acid that increases dopamine levels, often having a calming effect. Use the powdered variety so you can start at a low dosage. You can also purchase calming supplements marketed specifically for dogs (such as Pet-Ease®). However the majority of dogs with thunderstorm phobias exhibit such extreme anxiety that supplements alone are not enough. Storm phobias and separation anxiety are two behavioral problems where prescription medication is often needed.. An anti-anxiety medication (such as Clonicalm® or the less expensive amitripytiline, which was used often before Clonicalm® came on the market) is often prescribed for daily use during storm season, with the addition of a tranquilizer as needed on stormy days.

Timing is crucial!

The hardest part of being successful with medications is the timing. If the dog's adrenaline level is already up due to sensing the approach of a storm, his body may not be able to respond appropriately to the tranquilizer. Keep in mind that tranquilizers must be given at least an hour before your dog senses the storm's approach. This can be difficult in climates where storms arise suddenly, often while you are at work. This is when it can be helpful to have a neighbor involved in your dog's care. It is a wonderful blessing if your neighbor will actually come over and sit with your dog if a storm arises when you are away. But even if this cannot be arranged, a stay-at-home neighbor may be able to come over at least long enough to give your dog his med if a storm is approaching. Remember this will be less stressful on the neighbor if your dog will take the pill hidden in a tasty treat, such as a small piece of cheese or tasty Pill pockets®, which are made especially for hiding meds.

Calming massage is OK, but no "Oh poor baby" type of petting

When you are home during stormy events, be careful not to accidentally reinforce your dog’s fearful behavior by too much verbal reassurance. If you remain calm and act as if everything is normal, then your dog will be less fearful. Teach him, on non-stormy days, what a "place" command means, so he becomes used to relaxing on a mat or dog bed when he is directed to an area you choose. During storms, you can always move his mat to the room you are in.

Allow him to be near you, but do not hold him (as constant stroking and verbal reassurance can backfire; again, let me stress it is better to try to keep the environment as much like everyday life as possible. You do not want to accidentally reinforce fearful behavior). If the storm is not directly overhead, keep the television or radio on, to block out some of the noise. If you feel your dog needs touch in order to handle the storm, then use doggie massage, such as Tellington Touch®, (also called T-touch). This type of massage is easy to learn and if you can help your dog's body relax, it will in turn help his mind to relax.

Pheromones can make a difference

Use of a D.A.P.® plug-in can also have a calming effect. D.A.P.® stands for "dog appeasing pheromones". , You can use the plug-in in the room where your dog will be, or if you are at home, you can mist the spray on your dog's bed or even use D.A.P.® prepackaged wipes to smooth over your dog's coat. For an easy-to-understand explanation of how these products work to lower anxiety in dogs, visit the Pet Comfort Zone® website.

Wrap them up?

Other products marketed to help anxious and storm-phobic dogs include the Anxiety Wrap® as well as Storm Defender® (an anti-static doggie cape). Some people even make their own wraps by simply using an old t-shirt. The wrap works on the same premise as swaddling a baby. There is something about being wrapped closely that keeps babies calmer. I imagine it elicits the same type of calming feelings we have when we wrap ourselves up in a warm quilt in front of the fireplace on a chilly day. I don't have personal experience with using wraps or capes on fearful dogs but would love to hear from anyone who has used them.

Stay calm.

Last but never least, if you are with a dog that is having a hard time during a storm, use calm prayer and ask the dog's creator to give you wisdom as to how to best help him. Keep yourself calm, and if you happen to be afraid of storms, put on some calming music and FAKE IT, pretend you are not afraid! Think of how you would act if you were with a young child that was afraid--even if you were afraid, you would pretend that everything was okay, to keep the child calmer. Dogs, just like children, definitely pick up on our own emotions, so keeping your own fear under control will definitely help your dog overcome his fears.

If your dog has other fear-related behaviors, or if you are a dog trainer or animal rescue volunteer who often works with fearful dogs, please be sure not to miss our dog ebook entitled Healing the Broken Heart ... How to Rehab A Fearful Dog. This 20 page ebook is an easy-to-read, easy-to-apply guide that provides practical and simple steps that really work.

Questions or need help finding a particular product mentioned in this article? Melanie can be reached through the Contact link on You can also use this link if you would like to write for permission to reprint this article or add it to a dog training article library.

(c)2002-2011, Melanie Schlaginhaufen, Knowing Dogs, all rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any fashion without written permission from the author.