It is heartbreaking for a pet parent when you dog is afraid of thunderstorms. A normally happy, well-behaved dog can turn into an anxious, panting, pacing, hiding and whining dog at best, and a destructive beast at worst.
Fear of thunderstorms is a common phobia in dogs. It can begin in puppies or develop later in adult dogs. My golden retriever, Maggie, wasn’t afraid of storms until she reached 7 or 8 years old. Unfortunately, she grew more and more fearful as she got older.
Anxiety may also increase as summer progresses and thunderstorms become more frequent. Dogs already displaying other behaviors caused by anxiety, like separation anxiety, are more likely to also suffer from thunderstorm phobia.
It is unknown exactly what triggers the anxiety. Windy conditions, far-off rumbles of thunder or flashes of lightning, rain, changes in air pressure, or any combination of these may initiate anxiety.
Dogs fearful of thunderstorms are also commonly afraid of fireworks. More dogs run away on Independence Day than any other day of the year. Maggie did one year, too. We were lucky to find her the next day many miles away from our home.
To prevent your dog from becoming a runaway, make sure doors and windows are shut securely. Inspect fences and fix escape opportunities. Better yet, keep him on a leash whenever he goes outside. Maggie was never allowed outside without a leash for days before and after the Fourth of July after her road trip.
So you can find him in the event he does go on the run, be sure your dog has an ID tag on his collar. In addition, consider having him microchipped so animal control, the police department, a vet or an animal shelter can find you quickly.
Here are some tips to help your dog feel safe during thunderstorms or fireworks celebrations.
• Provide a safe space indoors. A basement, an interior room without windows or a room with the curtains drawn blocks out some of the light and sound. Compete with anxiety-producing sounds by turning on a radio, a television or a baby’s sound machine. If your dog is crate-trained, putting him in his crate may supply an added sense of safety. If he is not crate-trained, bringing his bed in his “quiet room” may make him more comfortable.
• Distract your dog with treats and toys. Give him a Kong filled with his favorite treats or play a favorite game. But try to act as normally as possible. Don’t offer more attention than is normally given. It can backfire and reinforce his fears instead. And never punish his anxiety-based behavior.
• Try to desensitize your dog. Play a video or CD of fireworks or a thunderstorm while he is having fun — playing or getting treats. After several sessions playing it softly, raise the volume gradually. Pay close attention to signs of fear and proceed at his pace. If all goes well, he will begin to associate the loud sounds with happy things.
The younger a dog is, the better chance desensitization will work. Older dogs will require a lot of patience. While it may never eliminate his fears, it may at least reduce the intensity of his anxiety.
See your veterinarian if your attempts to ease your dog’s fears are unsuccessful. She may recommend calming vests, products containing pheromones or anxiety-reducing medications.
• Diana Stoll is the Practice Manager at Red Barn Animal Hospital with locations in Hampshire and Gilberts. Visit redbarnpetvet.com, or call (847) 683-4788 (Hampshire) or (847) 426-1000 (Gilberts).