There are a few theories on this. And trust me—you’re not the only dog parent whose dog has this fear. Science says that a whopping 93% of dogs with some type of noise phobia are afraid of thunder, or something similarly loud like fireworks.
In fact, 2016 research in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior said noise phobias or noise sensitivities are one of the top 3 common anxieties in dogs (poor pups!). So, you can bet there are MANY dog parents looking for ways for their dog to cope with those big, bad and LOUD thunderstorms.
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HOW TO SPOT IT: What does noise or thunder phobia look like in dogs?
Thunderstorm phobia is pretty painful to watch in our canine companions. Behaviors often kick off right before or during storms and include things like:
- barking or whining
- becoming extra-aware of surroundings
- being clingy
- destroying furniture, walls, toys, etc.
- lip licking
- hiding under furniture or wherever possible
- pacing back and forth
- trying to run away or, horribly, actually escaping
- urinating/defecating unexpectedly (and probably not where you’d prefer they did)
- drooling or vomiting
Seeing your dog in this state isn’t fun for anyone and, often, pet parents are at a loss as to what to do. It’s not like you can just turn the thunderstorm off. (Important—if a lot of these things happen when it’s not thundering, a quick trip to the vet is a good idea to rule out other issues.)
THINGS TO CONSIDER: Am I making my dog’s fear worse?
There are various theories out there about why dogs are afraid of thunder.
Lauren Brickman, DVM, explains why dogs fear the thunder on Petfinder. “Many dogs are afraid of thunder simply because they do not understand what it is. Dogs hear this loud noise and perceive it as something threatening.” All the dog knows is that there is a LOUD, booming noise…and it’s not something they hear often. Sounds pretty scary, just thinking about it that way.
Another theory that still needs more testing is that dogs become statically charged when there’s a thunderstorm. Interesting, right?
Developed by Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DACVA, DACVB, a veterinarian at Tufts University, writes in detail about his theory in his article “Thunderstorm Phobia in Dogs” in Psychology Today. He says his theory came about after hearing stories of dogs going to the bathtub or sink or other place they could ground themselves when a thunderstorm happened. He’s also had pet parents tell him they get an electric shock when they touch their dog during a thunderstorm.
Whether the fear is rooted in electrical shock or from not understanding, it’s still difficult to see your doggy so afraid during a thunderstorm. But be careful about how you try to soothe your pooch, warns Dr. Brickman. Using a baby voice “can actually encourage [your dog’s] fear if he senses any insecurity in your voice.”
Instead, consider providing background noise, like radio or TV, to try to somewhat drown out the storm. You can also try playing with your pup, or practicing their favorite tricks for treats to get their mind off their anxiety.
FIRST STEPS TO TAKE: How can I help my dog be less afraid next time?
There’s a couple things you can do to start helping your pup cope with thunderstorms without jumping in fear:
Take it slow.
The article “Coping with Thunderstorm Phobia,” encourages pet parents to expose your dog slowly to stimuli similar to a thunderstorm (YouTube!) to help teach them to not be afraid. “Going too fast might make the dog even more frightened so taking things slowly will ensure maximum benefit from the process.” It’s important to work slowly and patiently with your pet as to not further intensify their fear. Consider ways to put very low audio of a storm on during your every day. Start with it not audible to you and gauge how your dog behaves. Don’t move on to anything louder until they appear relaxed and comfy.
After you desensitize, it’s time to make it fun.
Once your dog is desensitized to a trigger, it’s important to engage in the next process of counterconditioning, reports Sarah Heath, BVSc, DECVBM-CA, MRCVS, in “Dealing with Sound Phobias.” She says, “The aim of counterconditioning is to repeatedly present the same stimuli, in this case a sound, but in association with an activity that the dog is known to enjoy such as eating or playing.”
Remember, sound is powerful.
Victoria Stilwell also says in “Noise Phobias” that “the change in how dogs listen to sounds reduces their fear considerably and in some cases completely cures them of their phobias and sound sensitivities.”
Prevent, when you can.
Heath also believes having a plan for thunderstorms or other fear-inducing events can go a long way: “Successful environmental management involves making preparations for known phobic events by providing a reliable escape place, which must be constantly available to the dog.” By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. Right?!
Keep in mind, desensitization may not work.
One last tidbit from “Coping with Thunderstorm Phobia” to keep in mind is that “some dogs will respond well to all of the above therapies, but will become panicked when a real storm rolls in. It is therefore important to tackle this phobia in other ways by using effective management strategies and by masking any audio and visual stimuli that elicits a fear response during a storm.”
HOW TO GET HELP: Questions to ask your behavior professional
As well as reaching out to your vet, you may also want to reach out to a local positive-reinforcement-based trainer if the behavior is extreme.
Things you might ask are:
- How can I figure out exactly what my dog’s trigger(s) is/are?
- How can I respond more confidently to reassure my dog that they’re safe?
- What should I do when [name specific behavior your dog does during a storm]?
- Are there any medications and/or alternative therapies that may help? What about compression therapy or anti-anxiety supplements?
Use of clomipramine, alprazolam, and behavior modification for treatment of storm phobia in dogs from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association