Q: My dog shakes and hides during thunderstorms. How can I help her?
A: Noise phobias are a common issue. Many dogs begin to display a profound fear of thunder, fireworks, or other loud noises around 5-8 years of age, although some dogs will develop these fears earlier. If your dog is suffering, please know that this is a treatable problem.
Comforting is Okay
The first thing to be aware of is that comforting your dog is absolutely okay. Sarah Griffin, CPDT-KA of Paws Abilities Dog Training, recommends that you “help [your dog] feel as comfortable as possible during the actual event. Keep her safe, allow her to hide, and reassure her with lots of yummy snacks and praise.”
But won’t this reinforce her fear? Dr. Patricia McConnell, PhD. CAAB, writes “For so long we have been told that we’ll just make our dogs worse if we try to comfort them when they run to us in fear when the skies rumble and the rain falls. In this context, it really is doubtful that comforting your dog is going to make him worse …. Fear is designed to be aversive, and dogs who are terrified of thunder aren’t going to get worse because you stroked their belly.”
Tools and Solutions
Sometimes petting alone isn’t enough, though. If that’s the case with your dog, there are tools that can help. Griffin says that your dog “might benefit from various coping tools, such as a Thundershirt, calming pheromone spray, or a crate where she can hide safely.”
Thundershirt. The Thundershirt® is a tight jacket designed to provide deep pressure across your dog’s torso. Just as swaddling an infant or dressing a child with autism in a hug vest can sometimes have a calming effect, deep pressure is calming for some dogs. Make sure to check with your dog, though. If it increases her anxiety or doesn’t help, it’s not the right tool for your situation. Luckily, the company has a money-back guarantee.
Pheromone Sprays. These can be purchased in a wall diffuser that lasts for four weeks (perfect for thunderstorm season!) or in a spray that can be applied to your dog’s bandanna or bed, and that lasts about two hours. Pheromone sprays are available through various companies. Comfort Zone (sold as Adaptil through veterinarians) is one such option.
Medication. Experts agree that severe fear issues need to be addressed as medical emergencies. “If [your dog] is desperately struggling, calling your vet to talk about situational anxiety medication can make a world of difference” says Griffin.
Dr. Terri Derr, DVM of Veterinary Behavior Options, agrees. “Years ago, all I had to offer noise-phobic dogs was a tranquilizer, which did nothing to relieve the dog’s anxiety. Today I have many more medication choices.”
The days of sedating a dog to get them through thunderstorms are long past. Today’s medications are often anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) without being sedating, so your dog can still function normally and can learn while medicated.
There are also quite a few more medications available now than there used to be, so dedicated pet parents can work with their veterinarian (or a vet who specializes in behavioral issues, such as Dr. Derr) to find just the right fit for their dog.
“From a pharmacological standpoint, my best success comes when I combine daily anti-anxiety drugs (to help dogs respond more quickly to training protocols) with short-acting sedatives with anxiolytic properties. This combination therapy requires close communication with my clients to find the medications, dosage and timing that works best for their dog,” says Derr.
She also points out that a thorough physical examination is incredibly important when helping a dog who’s experienced a recent onset of noise phobias. “A recent study suggests a correlation between noise phobias and pain. Researchers found dogs suffering from undiagnosed pain were more prone to show fear of loud noises than dogs not living in pain.”
Counterconditioning. Both Derr and Griffin agree that medication alone is not sufficient to treat severe noise phobias, however. Derr says that she has gained “a better understanding of the importance of desensitization and counterconditioning to help my patients” over the years.
Griffin also stresses the importance of these training protocols. “The best long term treatment is to change how your dog feels about thunderstorms,” she advises. “We can’t explain to her what’s happening, but we can create a good emotional association with the noise.
Make it a dinnertime game by playing a thunderstorm CD or video on low volume, and giving her a few pieces of kibble every time there’s a boom. Make sure this is at a volume she isn’t bothered by, and slowly increase the volume as she gets better at the game. Eventually she’ll hear the boom and look to you for her treat.”
Layla’s Success Story
This combination approach of medication and training is the best practice for dogs with moderate to severe thunderstorm phobia. In fact, I have personal experience with just this sort of situation.
When I adopted my heart dog, Layla, she would scream and throw herself at doors and windows during thunderstorms. With the help of a daily anti-anxiety medication (sertraline) and a situational anxiety medication (alprazolam), Layla was able to remain calm enough during storms not to endanger herself while being alert enough to participate in training and learn from her experiences. This allowed me to begin counterconditioning the sound of thunder. I made sure that each boom predicted a piece of Layla’s favorite treat, chicken.
I’m happy to report that after two years, Layla was entirely cured of her thunderstorm phobia. After the first thunderstorm season, she was doing well enough to go down to half doses of her alprazolam, and by the second season of this training protocol, she was weaned off that drug entirely. She went on to live for another seven years without worrying about thunderstorms or fireworks. In fact, she taught many foster dogs to remain calm by modeling how she could nap through even the noisiest of storms!
If your dog is suffering, please talk to your dog’s care team (both her veterinarian and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer) to get help for her. Even the worst noise phobia can be treated. Your dog will feel better, and so will you!
Sara Reusche CBCC-KA CPDT-KSA CVT, is owner of Paws Abilities Dog Training.