Pet Care

Tips for Dealing With Fear of Thunder in Dogs

Many dogs display tremendous fear during thunder storms. While this behavior is not completely understood, and no certain remedies exist, here are some helpful tips for you and your pet to make the experience less traumatic.

Dr. Kari Wallentine, a veterinarian and Kansas State University graduate student in animal sciences and industry, said it is not entirely known at this point why a pet might develop a fear of thunderstorms.

"It's thought that the predominant aspect is the sound of thunder itself, but I'm researching other factors, including meteorological variables such as barometric pressure and static electricity," Wallentine said. "My dog can tell the difference between the Fort Riley artillery and a thunderstorm, so that makes me think there is something more going on in the thunderstorm that our pets pick up on and become afraid of."

Wallentine said other noises might be factors in a pet's fear of thunderstorms, such as hail, hard rain and high winds.

If a pet shows signs of fear during thunderstorms, Wallentine said it is most important for the owner not to reinforce the pet's fearful behavior.

"The one sure way to increase their fearful behavior is to reinforce it," Wallentine said. "Reinforcing it is doing anything the pet likes -- petting it, talking soothingly to it.

"When I first got my dog, she would hide in the closet during thunderstorms," Wallentine said. "I didn't know you shouldn't soothe your pet, so I would go in the closet with her and talk to her and pet her. Now, I don't do that, and she's actually decreased her fearfulness slightly."

Wallentine said not reinforcing the behavior becomes more difficult as the behavior becomes more destructive, because it is harder to ignore.

"Some dogs just hide in the closet, tremble or bark, but some do more extreme things that destroy their owners' property," Wallentine said. "Some dogs have been known to be so scared they eliminate or jump through windows. In this case, pharmaceuticals can help soothe the pet."

Wallentine said owners can also work through behavior modification with the fearful pet, something that involves two parts -- desensitization and counter-conditioning.

"The first part is desensitization, which is exposing the pet to the fear-evoking stimulus. For example, if the dog is fearful of thunderstorms, we expose it to a tape with the sound of a thunderstorm on it," Wallentine said.

"Start the sound at a low level where the dog doesn't even know it's there. If the dog is relaxed, reward that relaxed behavior," Wallentine said. "The second part is counter-conditioning, which is conditioning a dog to do a behavior that is not what they have been doing. Reward them for being relaxed and not fearful during the tapes of thunderstorm sounds. You just gradually expose them to the stimulus and reward them for good behavior. If they show fearful behavior, ignore them or turn the volume of the sound down until they are no longer fearful."

Wallentine said there are 10 major signs that your dog is anxious or afraid.

  1. Increased vigilance - "They're going to be more alert and scan their environment. They're going to have their ears up," she said.
  2. Heavy panting
  3. Shaking or trembling
  4. Hiding- "Dogs will choose to hide in many different places, but the most common places are under the bed or in a closet," Wallentine said.
  5. Increased or decreased amount of activity
  6. Soliciting attention - "Dogs will try to constantly get your attention," she said.
  7. Following you around - "They want to sit on your lap and be with you all the time," Wallentine said.
  8. Increasingly vocal, including howling, barking, whining and whimpering
  9. Eliminating in the house
  10. Trying to escape - "Some dogs try to get inside or get outside, just basically to get away from wherever they are. Some dogs have been known to jump through windows," she said.

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