Dogs can be afraid of thunderstorms for a few different reasons. The loud noises from thunder can hurt their sensitive ears and startle them. The flashes of lightning may also scare them. Some dogs are more sensitive to changes in barometric pressure that occur right before a storm hits, which can make them anxious. And many dogs pick up on their owner's tension and anxiety during storms as well. Whatever the cause, it's important to understand where your dog's fear is coming from so you can help them in an appropriate way.
Some common signs your dog is afraid during thunderstorms include shaking, panting, pacing, whining, hiding, clinging to you, loss of appetite, and urination accidents. Try to remain calm yourself when you notice your dog is fearful. Get their attention with treats or toys to distract them from the storm. Make sure they have access to a comfortable safe space they can retreat to.
Creating a Calm Environment
You can start helping your dog with their storm anxiety by creating a peaceful environment in your home on stormy days. Close blinds and curtains to block out lightning. Try using curtains or rugs to muffle the sound of thunder claps. Put on calm music or turn on the TV to mask the storm sounds. Make sure your dog has access to their crate or another comfortable safe space where they can retreat when they feel scared. Odors can also be calming, so you may want to diffuse calming essential oils or rub a little lavender oil on your dog's bedding.
Stay relaxed yourself, as your own anxiety can transfer to your dog. Try to stick to your normal routine as much as possible. Keep activities low-key by working on training or playing quiet games with treats or toys. Keep the atmosphere calm by avoiding yelling or loud noises. The goal is to keep everything feeling normal and undisturbed by the storm outside.
One of the most effective ways to reduce a dog's fear over time is counterconditioning. This means changing their negative feelings in response to something into more positive feelings. To do this, you want to identify things your dog is afraid of related to storms, and give them something positive at the same time. For example, if they are afraid of thunder noises, play them a recording of thunder at a very low volume and immediately reward them with high value treats.
Start at a volume level they notice but don't react fearfully to. Reward them continuously as long as the sound plays, plus an extra 30 seconds after it ends. Repeat this exercise moving the volume up just slightly over multiple sessions over weeks. The goal is to override their fearful response with a positive association. Always go slowly enough your dog stays below their fear threshold in each session. You can apply this same training technique using recordings of other storm sounds like rain or wind.
Medications for Severe Anxiety
For dogs with severe phobias to thunderstorms or other loud noises, anti-anxiety medications may be needed alongside behavior modification training. There are a few different types of medications vets may prescribe to treat noise phobias in dogs.
Benzodiazepines like alprazolam are fast acting anti-anxiety drugs. They work quickly but effects don't last very long.
Tricyclic antidepressants like clomipramine take up to 4 weeks to start working but can help long term with sound phobias. They have more side effects than benzodiazepines.
SSRIs like fluoxetine are another type of antidepressant that can reduce anxiety. They take 6-8 weeks to become fully effective.
Supplements like melatonin and l-theanine are sold over the counter and may help relax some anxious dogs.
Always consult your veterinarian before giving your dog any medication, even natural supplements. Work closely with them to determine if medications could be helpful for your dog's specific situation and which type might work best. Never give your dog medications prescribed for human use without explicit vet approval. Use medication under the guidance of your vet along with continued positive reinforcement training.
Preparing an Emergency Kit
It can be helpful for storm phobic dogs to have a handy emergency kit to use when thunderstorms occur. This can include any medications prescribed by your vet, chemical hand warmers, a Thundershirt to apply gentle pressure, and a favorite toy or blanket. Include printed info on recognizing panic attack symptoms in dogs, calming techniques, and emergency contacts.
Keep this kit in an easily accessible place. When a storm is occurring or forecast, take out items your dog may need to stay calm and be prepared to use them. For example, wrap your dog in a pre-warmed Thundershirt and give them an oral dose of prescribed medicine when the storm starts. Having emergency items prepared ahead of time removes some stress and allows you to focus on keeping your dog relaxed.
Synthetic pheromones are another tool that may help reduce anxiety in dogs prone to thunderstorm fear. Pheromones are chemicals released by animals that can impact behavior and emotions in others of the same species. Products like Adaptil mimic dog appeasing pheromones and come as sprays, diffusers, and collars. They can create a general sense of comfort and relaxation.
Diffusers can be used in your dog's safe space to make that area more soothing. Sprays can be applied to bedding or bandanas right before a storm to help your dog stay calm. Consult your vet to see if pheromone products may be helpful. Proper use alongside other techniques can promote relaxation and decrease thunderstorm anxiety. But pheromones alone won't override an existing phobia in your dog.
Using Dog Appeasing Signals
Dogs communicate a lot through body language. Using calming dog body language yourself can sometimes help relax a thunder phobic dog. This is called dog appeasing signaling. Some things to try include:
Turning your head/looking away
Licking your lips
Sitting with your back to the storm
Pretend sniffing/shaking off like shaking off rain
Moving in a slow, relaxed, wiggly way
These behaviors give off a vibe that you are relaxed about the storm. By mirroring your calm energy, this can help put your dog more at ease. It may distract them from the storm noises and flashes happening around them. Stay relaxed in your own body when using these behaviors. Anxious or tense body language from you will undo any benefits.
Having various distractions on hand can be very helpful for getting your dog's mind off the storm outside. This could include:
Food puzzles with high-value treats
Long-lasting chews like frozen Kongs
Novel toys they don't have access to normally
Training practice (commands they know well) with enticing rewards
The more absorbed your dog is in an activity, the less attention they'll pay to the storm. Try to redirect their attention as soon as you notice their anxiety ramping up. Breaking their focus on the storm prevents panic from setting in. Have multiple distractions ready to keep them occupied until the storm passes.
Stay Near Your Dog
While all dogs have their own preferences, most thunder phobic dogs feel safest when their owner is close by for comfort. Be aware of your dog's tendencies and accommodate them during storms. If they seek you out due to anxiety, make sure to stay near them. If they prefer retreating to their crate or closet, stay in the same room to reassure them.
Have portable distractions ready so you can sit by your dog's side during peak anxiety. Some dogs take comfort from being held on your lap. Offer gentle pets and speak to them in a calm, happy tone. Your physical presence can provide enormous relief. Adjust your schedule to be there when they need you most before and during storms.
Natural Calming Aids
There are several natural supplements on the market that claim to have calming effects in dogs. Some products to discuss with your vet include:
Melatonin: This hormone regulates sleep cycles. It may help anxious dogs relax. Give 1-3 mg tablets 1 hour before a storm.
Chamomile: Mildly sedating. Give chamomile tea, extracts, or capsules.
Valerian: Helps relieve muscle tension. Use liquid tinctures a few hours before storms.
L-theanine: An amino acid that increases serotonin/dopamine and alpha waves. Available in capsules or chews.
CBD Oil: Interacts with receptors involved in anxiety and fear. Available as oil drops or treats.
Always talk to your vet before using any supplement, especially with anti-anxiety medications. While generally safe, they can cause side effects. Proper dosage for your dog's size is also very important. Natural products work best alongside other training techniques.
Desensitization to Recordings
An effective way to get dogs comfortable with the sounds of thunderstorms is by controlled desensitization. This involves playing recordings of storm noises at a very low volume and slowly raising it over multiple sessions. Start with a volume your dog notices but doesn't react to with fear. Reward them continuously with high-value treats while the recording plays.
Gradually increase the volume over subsequent sessions over several weeks. Stop sessions if the dog indicates anxiety and take a break. The key is keeping them under their fear threshold while they get used to the sounds. Consistent exposure coupled with positive associations should lessen their fear reaction over time. Always proceed very slowly and let your dog's reactions guide the pace.
Sometimes a technique called masking can help facilitate desensitization to thunderstorm noises. This means playing other noises along with the storm sounds to "drown them out" a bit at first. For example, you might play storm sounds very low underneath city noise or traffic sounds. As your dog relaxes at that level, lower the volume on the masking noises and slowly raise the volume on the storm tracks.
This technique works because the storm sounds are less pronounced to start with. The other noises capture more of their attention allowing them to stay relaxed at higher volumes. You can also use highly distracting activities like a flirt pole or food puzzle to mask the storm noises at first. As your dog learns to relax with the storm sounds in the background, you can lower the level of distraction.
Create a Safe Space
It's important dogs with storm phobia have access to a comfortable safe space where they can wait out the storm. Often a crate lined with blankets works well for this, especially if covered with a blanket over the top and sides to further muffle noise and create a den-like environment. Other potential safe spaces include under furniture, in interior closets, or in basements/bathrooms.
Allow your dog to access their preferred safe space whenever a storm hits. Make it as comfortable as possible with their bed, some worn shirts that smell like you, a pheromone diffuser, water bowl, food puzzles, and other calming toys and chews. Close the doors and reassure them verbally when they retreat there. Reward them periodically for remaining calm in their safe space. Respect their need to retreat there, don't force them to come out until the storm fully passes.
Wearing a snug fitting calming vest or shirt can help some dogs relax during thunderstorms. These work by applying gentle but constant pressure around the torso. This pressure has a soothing effect like swaddling an infant. There are many different products available commercially including the popular ThunderShirt. You can also make your own by wrapping an elastic bandage or stretchy t-shirt snugly around their ribcage.
The important thing is it hugs their body without constricting movement or breathing. Put it on before the storm arrives. Make sure to introduce it positively by pairing it with rewards. This can help prevent your dog from developing an aversion to wearing the calming wearable. It should help them feel more relaxed and less anxious as the storm passes overhead.
Training an Incompatible Behavior
One way to deal with thunderstorm anxiety is by training your dog to perform behaviors that are incompatible with fear responses. For example, teach them to go lie down on their mat on cue. Or train them to put their nose in a target stick and hold it there for a duration. You can't eat treats and drool in terror at the same time.
Reinforce these trained cues when you first notice storm anxiety starting. Reward continuously throughout the storm to keep them focused. This prevents their fear from escalating into a panic response. Stay upbeat during the training session – your mood helps keep them feeling safe. Incompatible behaviors give them an outlet for their nervous energy and keep their mind engaged.
For some dogs, having access to too large of an area during a storm can increase their anxiety. They may obsessively run from window to window looking outside, or endlessly pace around whining. It can help to confine them to a single room with window coverings closed and various calming aids available. This removes visual stimuli and limits their physical reaction options.
Choose an interior room with as few windows as possible. Set up their bed, crate, toys, puzzles, and other aids they find relaxing. You can sit in there with them and work on training activities. The smaller, less stimulating space can help prevent them from working themselves up. Praise and reward any calm behavior. The more times you can get them through a storm calmly in the confinement area, the more their anxiety may decrease.
Confidence building activities like agility training can be helpful for anxiety prone dogs before storm season hits. Agility provides mental challenges and requires focus and coordination. It builds trust between you and your dog. And it tires them out physically as well which promotes relaxation. The same benefits can be achieved through advanced obedience work, tricks training, obstacle courses – anything that engages their brain and body in a positive way.
A dog that already has increased confidence in themselves and their handler from training is better equipped to handle stressors like thunderstorms. Agility or another activity gives them an emotional and physical outlet to help cope with anxiety. Like people, exercising before a stressful event can help dogs better manage fear. Daily training keeps those benefits going all storm season.
Some dogs are soothed by gentle but constant pressure applied by an anxiety wrap or similar product. These work like swaddling an infant by wrapping a stretchy bandage, cloth, or other material snugly (but not too tight) around the dog's torso. Light pressure has been found to have calming effects.
There are several commercial options like the Thundershirt which are designed specifically for dogs. Or you can make one yourself with an elastic bandage, stretchy t-shirt/ tank top, or garment cut and sewn for a custom fit. Introduce slowly with rewards so the dog enjoys wearing it. Put it on before storms arrive to ease anxiety. It can prevent intensifying reactions or panic by providing constant soothing pressure.
Provide a Noise Buffer
You can help buffer some of the noise from thunderstorms inside your home by taking simple precautions. Close any windows that storms are approaching from. Draw curtains/blinds to help muffle noise and eliminate lightning flashes. Turn on music, TV, fans or other background noise to mask thunder claps.
If your dog has a crate or safe space, put it in an interior room with as few windows as possible. Cover the crate on all sides with blankets to further reduce outside noise. The more you can make the indoor environment muted and insulating, the less frightening the storm will seem. It also eliminates triggers like lightning flashes that could startle your dog and kick off a panicked reaction.
Remain Calm Yourself
Our own behavior and energy impacts our dogs, so it's important to control your own reaction during a thunderstorm. Dogs are very adept at reading human body language and emotions. If you act tense, anxious, or upset, they will pick up on those cues even if the reason isn't apparent. This can increase their fear and anxiety exponentially.
When a storm starts, consciously act neutral and go about your normal activities. Respond to their fearful behavior calmly, using a happy tone of voice. Smile, sing, and give encouraging praise for any brief moments of calm behavior. Take relaxing deep breaths; your composure can help relax your dog. Surround them with your calm, settled energy as opposed to nervous, worried energy. This gives them an emotional base of stability.
Provide Environmental Enrichment
Providing more environmental enrichment in general can help dogs prone to thunderstorm anxiety handle stressful events better. Enrichment means stimulating their environment mentally, physically, and socially. Rotating new toys gives novelty to stimulate their brains. Various surfaces and textures, puzzles, and food dispensing toys engage them. Social play provides bonding and stress relief.
Enrich their indoor and outdoor spaces with activities they enjoy. Boredom and lack of stimulation leaves them more vulnerable to stress. An enriched environment continually strengthens their ability to cope. Focus extra enrichment efforts around storms – have special toys only used on storm days to get their attention. Try hiding treats around a room to distract them. New experiences build nerve connections in the brain.
For severe cases of thunderstorm phobia or anxiety, prescription anti-anxiety medications may be needed to help a dog stay calm. Commonly prescribed options include benzodiazepines like alprazolam which act fast but may cause sedation. Other choices are antidepressants/SSRIs like fluoxetine which require 2-4 weeks to reach full effect.
Medications can be given situationally right when a storm occurs. Or for dogs with more generalized anxiety, daily medication may be prescribed. This is something your vet will advise you on. There are also some over the counter supplements like melatonin that may provide mild calming effects. Always talk to your vet before giving your dog any medication, even natural ones