Thunderstorm Phobias in Dogs

Some dogs never fear thunderstorms.  Others seem to be afraid from the moment they are born.  Still others develop a thunderstorm sensitivity as they grow older.  No one is sure what causes thunderstorm phobias in dogs.  Some ideas are failure to be exposed to thunderstorms as a puppy, a bad event during a thunderstorm, unintentional reinforcement of a fear response by the owner, or a genetic cause.  Whatever the cause, dogs with a thunderstorm phobia can do a lot of damage to themselves and their environment in their panic.

Thunderstorm phobia may be triggered by rain, thunder, lightening, or even cloudy days.  Changes in barometric pressure and static electricity that accompany storms may also trigger the phobia.  Signs of thunderstorm phobia include:  pacing, panting, trembling, hiding, remaining near the owner, excessive drooling, destructiveness, excessive vocalization–barking, howling, or crying, self-inflicted injuries, and fecal incontinence.  It isn’t just behavior that is effected by the thunderstorm phobia.  The dog may also experience internal changes such as tachycardia, increased cortisol levels, stress-induced hyperglycemia, anorexia, gastrointestinal upset, adrenergic/nor-adrenergic overstimulation, tachypnea, acral lick dermatitis, and other problems.

As you can see, thunderstorm phobias can wreck havoc on a dog inside and out as well as his environment.  When you take your dog to the veterinarian, he will rule out any physical causes for the symptoms the dog presents with while seeing if the dog has caused any physical problems with its phobia.  He will also differentiate the thunderstorm phobia from separation anxiety, barrier frustration, and noise phobias.

Treatment of thunderstorm phobias involves both behavioral treatment and drug treatment.  The dog may be treated with anti-depressants that help with obsessive behaviors such as phobias, or with sedatives to help the dog endure the storms.  It is important not to crate the dog during storms as he may injure himself trying to get away from the storm.

The behavioral treatment of thunderstorm phobias has to be done correctly or it will make matters worse.  Moving too fast is a common error that reinforces the phobia. The behavioral part of the treatment is a type of desensitization and a redirection of behavior.

You can obtain a CD of thunderstorm noises fairly easily.  Play this at a low volume near the dog.  The volume needs to be so low he does not react to the noises.  As the dog gets used to the sound, you gradually, over several weeks, increase the volume.  You always stop at a volume the dog does not react to.  As the dog gets used to this volume, you increase it a bit.  Gradually the dog gets used to the sounds and stops reacting to them.  If you move too fast, however, you reinforce the dog’s fear of the sounds.

Second, you can teach the dog tricks or obedience and have the dog do them during the storm, rewarding him for correct behavior.  This makes it impossible for the dog to be destructive during the storm as he is doing an incompatible behavior.

If your dog is given anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications, he will need regular blood tests.  If the thunderstorm phobia is not treated it will worsen.