Helping a dog with a thunderstorm phobia can be challenging. Learn how to help resolve a dog’s fear of thunder with behavior modification training.
A thunderstorm can spur severe anxiety and fear in a dog. A dog who is scared of thunder may exhibit anxiety, fear and even aggression. Unfortunately, many dog owners attempt to comfort their pet during a thunderstorm, but these attempts to comfort a fearful animal can actually worsen the dog’s fear of thunder.
Fortunately, there are some very effective methods that can be used to help a dog overcome a fear of thunderstorms, but these dog training methods will require consistency and patience.
Signs of a Dog’s Fear of Thunderstorms
Many dogs who are scared of thunder experience a worsening of their phobia over time. If the problem can be addressed sooner rather than later, treating the dog’s thunderstorm phobia will be easier.
The following anxious and fearful behaviors are commonly exhibited by a dog with a fear of thunder:
- Excessive barking
- Shivering and shaking
- Excessive salivation
- Muscle tension
- Fearful body language (head lowered, tail between the legs)
Some dogs can exhibit extreme behaviors as a result of a thunderstorm phobia. Dogs have been known to self-mutilate, attack other pets and get destructive in their attempt to “run away” from the thunder (i.e. jumping through plate glass windows or clawing through walls and doors).
Tools for Helping a Dog Overcome a Fear of Thunder
Unfortunately, when a dog begins exhibiting signs of fear and anxiety, many dog owners are compelled to coddle and comfort the dog. But this tends to only worsen the dog’s thunder phobia; serving as validation for the dog’s fear.
Instead, dog owners should work to “desensitize” the dog, neutralizing his fear and eliminating any behavior problems associated with anxiety or fear.
The first step to helping a dog overcome a fear of thunder involves obtaining a recording of thunder (though in tropical locations, this may not be necessary, as the dog training can be performed during the daily afternoon thunderstorms.) Thunderstorm recordings can be purchased online or made at home during a thunderstorm. The higher-quality professional recordings of thunderstorms tend to be more effective for purposes of phobia desensitization.
Dog owners will also require high-value dog treats (i.e. bits of hot dog or cheese) and the dog’s favorite pet toys. A basic knowledge of obedience training methods is vital for dogs who don’t typically play with toys.
Training a Dog to Eliminate a Fear of Thunderstorms
The key to helping rid a dog of his fear of thunder involves associating the thunder with positive stimuli or positive activities. Over time, this neutralizes the dog’s response to thunder, eliminating the element of fear.
Dog owners can help the dog overcome a fear of thunder by playing the thunderstorm recording at a low level. In the case of a real thunderstorm, training should begin as soon as thunder becomes audible to the dog; so when the dog begins exhibiting signs of fear and anxiety, intervention should begin.
The dog owner should work to occupy the dog’s mind with interactive play or obedience training. Some dogs will enjoy a game of fetch or tug, while other dogs will be better occupied with an obedience training practice session. The key is to keep the interaction playful, fun and rewarding, with plenty of verbal praise and high-value treats like bits of meat, cheese or carrot.
The play or training will keep the dog’s mind occupied and when the dog is focusing on play or training, his mind is not focused on the thunderstorm, so there’s a decrease in the dog’s fear and anxiety.
Over time, the dog will associate the sound of thunder with the positive experience of praise, treats and interaction with the owner. Over time, the dog’s fear of thunderstorms will disappear because he will associate the thunderstorm with positive experiences instead of fearful experiences.
Once a dog is calm and free of fear and anxiety when the thunderstorm recording is played at a low level, the volume should be raised slightly and the process of providing positive interaction should be repeated until the dog is consistently fear-free at that particular volume level. Over time, the volume is gradually raised.
When performing fear desensitization training using daily thunderstorms, positive interaction with the dog should continue until the dog essentially “shuts down” from fear and anxiety. Over time, the dog will begin to tolerate thunder at louder and louder levels since he will begin to associate thunder with positive stimuli.
Cautions When Performing Desensitization Training With a Fearful Dog
Each dog reacts differently to fear. Some dogs may lash out due to fear, becoming aggressive to other pets and even humans. So dog owners should use caution when working with a fearful pet.
Some dogs will exhibit extreme behaviors during a thunderstorm. If the dog places himself at physical risk of injury (i.e. attempting to jump through closed windows, self-mutilating due to anxiety) as a result of his fear of thunder, it’s best to seek assistance from a professional dog trainer. Dog owners may also want to speak with their veterinarian, who may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to help the pet cope with his thunderstorm fears, thereby improving the dog’s behavior problems during a thunderstorm.