Do they dive under the bed whenever rain starts to fall?
This may seem like cute and endearing behaviour, but it’s a sign that your dog is terrified of storms. Some people are willing to simply put up with symptoms of storm phobias like hiding, trembling, whining, drooling, and pacing. In more severe cases, however, panicking dogs have been known to chew furniture, tear curtains, break windows. In either case, the behaviour is a sign of a terrified, unhappy dog.
Storm phobias are one of the most common behavioural problems we see, but the cause is not entirely clear. Behaviourists are not yet sure what part of the storm frightens dogs most, whether they’re reacting to lightning flashes, the sound of thunder, wind blowing around the house or the sound of rain on the roof. Some dogs even start to pace and whine half an hour or more before a storm. They may be reacting to a sudden drop in air pressure or the smell of ozone in the air.
Nature or nurture?
An article in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association describes a survey of the owners of storm-phobic dogs. The authors discovered that some breeds might be predisposed to a fear of storms. Herding dogs, such as collies and German shepherds, and hounds, such as beagles and basset hounds, seem to be more likely to develop a storm phobia than other dogs. The phobia is also common in sporting and working breeds. The study suggests that this tendency may be explained in terms of the dogs’ genetics. For example, herding dogs have been bred to react quickly to stimuli, such as a calf wandering away from the herd, but not to be aggressive. It could be that herding dogs have a strong reaction to the startling noises and flashes of a storm, but they repress any aggressive response to it, causing anxiety.
The study also showed that rescued dogs (dogs adopted from pounds or rescue organizations) may also be more likely to develop storm phobias. The article suggested that these dogs are more likely to have had unpleasant, scary experiences prior to being adopted. They may have been abused or abandoned by a former owner, or they may not have been well socialized or exposed to a wide variety of sights and sounds. These kinds of early-life experiences can make dogs more anxious and prone to all kinds of phobias.
What to do
Your best bet for helping your dog overcome their thunderstorm fears is to talk to us. We can help you develop a program to gradually retrain your anxious dog by gradually, gently helping them adjust to storms through behaviour modification. Technically called “counter conditioning and desensitization” this involves exposing a storm-phobic dog to some gentle reminders of a thunderstorm, such as a very soft CD of thunder or a flashing light, and rewarding the dog with lots of treats, attention, and other positive reinforcement only if there’s no evidence of anxiety. Over time, the intensity of the stimulus is increased, and only calm behaviour is rewarded.
If gentle, patient retraining doesn’t help your dog, there are some prescriptions that might. In some cases we can prescribe an anti-anxiety medications to help your dog remain calm during storms. You can also make sure your dog has a warm, safe “den” to retreat to when the weather gets too scary. You can clear a space underneath your bed. Just make sure that it’s somewhere your dog can get out of whenever they want. A panicked dog can do a lot of damage to your house and themselves if confined. We have also seen great results with anti-anxiety pheromones that come as a plug in diffuser or now as a collar.
Most important, though, is that your treat your dog gently and kindly when they are afraid. Don’t cuddle and reassure them, because that will reward their panicked behaviour, but definitely don’t punish them for it either. Instead, just be calm and provide them with a safe, familiar place where they can feel secure and ride out the storm.
This post was originally written in 2012