Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live. ~ Dorothy Thompson
What is thunderstorm phobia?
The word "phobia" comes from the Greek word "phobos" and means “fear”. One of the definitions of phobia found in Webster’s New World Medical Dictionary explains the word “phobia” as: “An unreasonable sort of fear that can cause avoidance and panic. Phobias are a relatively common type of anxiety disorder.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary explains phobia as: “An anxiety disorder characterized by extreme and irrational fear of simple things or social situations; "phobic disorder is a general term for all phobias". Therefore, a thunderstorm phobia is an abnormal fear of thunderstorms and is considered an anxiety disorder.
What’s the difference between fear and phobia?
The difference is one of intensity and degree. A phobia is an anxiety disorder, a pathologically strong fear that is often irrational and illogical, as there is no real immediate danger. Thunderstorm phobia is quite common in dogs. According to recent studies by researchers at Penn State University, about 15 percent to 30 percent of dogs are affected by thunderstorm anxiety. Many times a dog that has a thunderstorm phobia may also have other noise phobias, such as fireworks phobia, as well as other types of anxieties. Bruce Fogle, DVM, in his book “The Dog’s Mind” says this about fear: “Fear in a potentially harmful situation is a normal and healthy reaction. We humans have the distinct advantage over all other animals in that we can talk about it. Imagine what a thunderstorm would be like if no one could tell you it wouldn’t hurt us. The only way we would learn that thunderstorms aren’t dangerous would be though habituation, through learning from experience that the noise would not harm us. This is the way dogs must learn to control their fears”. And further, Dr. Fogle describes how fear becomes a phobia: “Fears are constantly learned and unlearned. (…) When fears are not unlearned (…), they become phobias.” Fear is a natural and necessary emotional reaction based on the instinct of self-preservation. However, when the fear is irrational, and when it becomes so ingrained in a dog’s mind and so extreme that it starts to “paralyze” and affect the normal functioning of the dog, it is referred to as a phobia. In other words, a dog with a phobia becomes a prisoner of his own strong feelings of fear and is simply an unhappy, unstable, insecure dog. The most compassionate thing to do to help a dog suffering from thunderstorm phobia is to free the animal from the “prison of emotional pain” and let him get back to his natural, balanced way of living, wherein every moment is harmonious and peaceful, rather than chaotic and terrifying.
Theories about what causes thunderstorm phobia in dogs
There are various theories that attempt to explain why dogs suffer from thunderstorm phobia, but as of now, there are no clear or definite answers. One theory is that a thunderstorm phobic dog might be afraid of various triggers and be affected by certain thunderstorm elements, such as noise, lightning, the sound of the wind, the sound of rain, atmospheric changes, static electricity in the air, etc. Another idea states that some breeds might be genetically predisposed to suffer from thunderstorm phobia. Other theories suggest that thunderstorm phobia in dogs might be caused by changes in atmospheric pressure, noting that many dogs become restless hours before the actual thunderstorm begins.
Which dogs suffer from thunderstorm phobia?
Certain dog breeds are more prone to thunderstorm phobia and noise related phobias than others. As of now, there really isn't any explanation as to why certain dog breeds are more prone to these phobias. Here are some groups that are at a higher risk of becoming thunderstorm phobic:
- certain breeds from certain dog breed groups (working group, hound group, sporting group) including German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Collies, Basset Hounds and Beagles may be more prone to thunderstorm phobia
- rescue and shelter dogs: an article in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association explains that it is quite likely that these rescue and shelter dogs might have had some previous bad or scary experiences with thunderstorms, might have been abused, neglected, abandoned or not socialized properly either as puppies (especially in the critical periods of puppy development) or later in life
- dogs (not necessarily rescue or shelter dogs) that were not exposed to a wide variety of sounds and experiences by the owner in the process of socialization
- dogs that have separation anxiety are more likely to suffer from thunderstorm phobia as well; many times a dog who suffers from thunderstorm phobia might be also anxious in other situations.
Symptoms of thunderstorm phobia and its various levels of severity
Physical reactions to and symptoms of the phobia can range in level of severity from mild to very strong. Some dogs may simply dislike thunder and suffer from mild anxiety. Other dogs will go into avoidance mode and try to escape the thunderstorm. Finally, in the most extreme cases, the reaction is characterized by the dog suffering the equivalent of what we would term a panic attack. Dogs with the most severe form of thunderstorm phobia cannot think, cannot relax, and cannot function. They go through a very dark and painful experience during a thunderstorm. To us humans, these are just “moments”, as thunderstorms come and go, but we often forget that dogs live in the moment, so the experience of “now” is very intense for them at all times.
Some thunderstorm phobia symptoms may include:
- becoming very “clingy” with the owner
- tucking the tail
- trembling and shaking all over
- vocalizing: whining, barking, etc.
- increased heartbeat
- dilated pupils
- trying to find a hiding place in the house
- refusing food; no interest in food
- becoming destructive in the house (chewing, digging, attempting to go through walls, jumping through windows and glass doors)
- running away
- losing control of bladder or bowels
- trying to escape kennels or crates
The sooner such a phobia is treated, the easier it is to rehabilitate a thunderstorm phobic dog.
If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
~ Marcus Aurelius
Does thunderstorm phobia come and go?
Fears don’t always turn into phobias; however, once they do, the phobias, unfortunately, don’t just disappear. Once a dog starts suffering from thunderstorm phobia, the phobia will not go away on its own, but rather will usually get worse if the problem is not addressed properly by the owner (preferably using the help of a professional dog behavior specialist). A phobia is a learned emotional response that does not go away on its own. Think about people with phobias. If somebody is “paralyzed” by a fear of spiders, he won’t just wake up one day and feel no fear towards spiders anymore. Many times people need some professional help in defeating their own fears and phobias. It’s similar with dogs. Dogs also may need some help with “unlearning” certain emotional responses. In the case we are discussing, dogs need to be taught how to cope with stress and how to relax during thunderstorms.
If you as the owner of a dog that is experiencing thunderstorm phobia feel helpless and unsure how to proceed, it is best to seek the help of a canine professional who specializes in dog behavior.
The dog owner’s attitude: sympathetic owners and nervous owners
We dog owners love our dogs dearly and it is very difficult to witness our own dog’s suffering and to feel helpless in the face of this suffering. Consequently, a very common owner reaction when the canine companion starts to panic is to attempt to soothe the dog. However this strategy can actually backfire and reinforce fear in the dog. Furthermore, the studies done by Penn State University revealed that, “having a sympathetic owner did not lower the stress reaction of dogs that become anxious or fearful during noisy thunderstorms.” Therefore, an owner’s sympathy will not help the dog. In fact, it may even have a detrimental effect on the dog if the dog views such sympathy as a form of validation of its nervous and anxious state of mind. To the dog it is as if the dog owner is sending the message, “I know what you’re going through and I agree that this situation is in fact scary and horrific…” The attempt to soothe the dog can create an emotional downward spiral that can make the phobia even stronger. I have known dog owners who were afraid of thunderstorms themselves and who were quite “jumpy” and nervous whenever there was lightning or the sound of thunder. Every loud “boom” was greeted with an exclamation and an accompanying nervous reaction. These behaviors were witnessed by the family dogs, who, while not initially thunderstorm phobic, observed everything and learned that thunderstorms were a source of stress, a cause of panic and something to be afraid of. Indeed, over the years, these dogs developed strong thunderstorm phobias with symptoms familiar to a lot of dog owners: trying to find places to hide, excessive panting, shaking all over, restlessness, vocalizing, etc. These learned phobic reactions were further reinforced by the scared dog owners, who petted and attempted to soothe the terrified dogs. Sometimes, a dog owner's simple acknowledgement that he or she is indeed afraid of thunderstorms and might be projecting nervous, fearful energy may be a big first step in helping to treat the dog's thunderstorm phobia. If the owners can find ways to learn how to relax themselves, they’ll be much better pack leaders for their dogs.
Severe stress and its effect on a dog
Stress is a natural part of our lives and of our dogs’ lives. However, severe stress that lasts for prolonged periods of time or happens over and over again can have very detrimental results on a both a dog’s physical and mental health. A study done in 2006 by Dr. Nancy Dreschel, a veterinarian and researcher at Pennsylvania State University, describes the so called “fight or flight” response and the effects of stress on health: “Certain events act as stressors, triggering the nervous system to produce hormones to respond to the perceived danger. Specifically, the adrenal glands produce more adrenaline and cortisol, releasing them into the bloodstream. This speeds up heart and breathing rates, and increases blood pressure and metabolism. These and other physical changes help us to react quickly and effectively under pressure. This is known as the stress response, or more commonly, as the fight or flight response. But if even low levels of stress go on too long, it can be detrimental to one's health. The nervous system remains slightly activated and continues to pump out extra stress hormones over an extended period, leaving the person feeling depleted or overwhelmed, and weakening the body's immune system.”
How to prevent thunderstorm phobia in your dog?
- Begin socializing your dog properly from the time you get it and continue to do so for the rest of your dog’s life. Teach your dog about the world. Expose your dog to various types of situations so the dog learns the difference between the normal unthreatening circumstances and real threats and dangers.
- Encourage confidence in your dog from the very beginning of your relationship. A lot of dog owners assume (after hearing stories about dogs who were terrified of thunderstorms) that extreme fear of thunderstorms is normal and unavoidable. This is not necessarily the case. While some stress and fear about natural phenomenon such as thunderstorm may be normal, phobic reactions in animals are not normal.
- Create a safe and calm environment for your dog. This is our responsibility as dog owners and pack leaders. We need to lead our dogs, protect them from various dangers, and show them by our own calm attitude that thunderstorms are not something to panic about. Your dog should feel secure in his own home, his “den”. It is your dog’s “castle” where nothing can harm him and where his pack leaders “rule” and control the environment. Many times by following the weather forecast we can predict when a storm might be coming. In tropical or sub-tropical areas of the world there are rainy seasons that are accompanied by lots of thunderstorms.
- Exercise your dog regularly and exercise your dog before upcoming thunderstorms. Provide the dog with an adequate amount of exercise for the dog’s energy level and breed requirements. A tired dog is a good dog, they say, and there’s a lot of truth in that saying. A tired dog is also a relaxed and calm dog and is less likely to panic in a thunderstorm. Many times, dogs that are not properly exercised build up a lot of frustration. If they also don’t engage in any activities to develop their intellect, they can become frustrated and bored. Their world in these situations is pretty monotonous. When they then experience a very exciting and dramatic event, they may simply be unable to cope.
The only safe ship in a storm is leadership.
~ Faye Wattleton
Preparing for thunderstorms and thunderstorm season
- Prepare and prevent: You can prepare yourself and your dog for thunderstorms and prevent your dog from developing very negative associations with thunderstorms. You can do this by educating yourself first. You are already doing this by reading this article.
- Watch the weather forecast: If you reside in a geographical area that has a rainy season filled with thunderstorms, it will be relatively easy to know when to expect them. Just check the weather forecast and the local radar and prepare in advance.
- Increase exercise before thunderstorms: Take your dog on a long walk or bike ride a few hours before a thunderstorm if you know one is coming. It will help your dog to release some pent up energy. Then it’ll be easier for your dog to relax during the thunderstorm.
- Use a crate on a regular basis so your dog becomes very used to it, likes it and can always retire to it knowing that it's a safe spot. If you have crate trained your dog properly, he will be more likely to simply go there if he’s a bit unsure or worried.
- Turn on some “white noise” during the thunderstorm: you can use a fan, air conditioner, or radio tuned between channels. You can also turn on some music.
- Have a “no big deal” attitude
Tips about thunderstorms and puppies:
If you’re thinking about getting a puppy or a new dog, develop a plan as to what you’re going to teach your new dog about thunderstorms BEFORE the puppy arrives, how you’re going to act, and what you want your dog to do during a thunderstorm. I got my own dog when she was a puppy. When she came home it was the beginning of the rainy season here in Florida. From the very beginning, my puppy learned that a thunderstorm is just a normal part of life and nothing to be worried about. She saw that all pack members had the same attitude regarding thunderstorms: calm and even disinterested. She saw that thunderstorms were not a big deal. I also taught her that positive and fun things happen during a storm. I made sure that thunderstorm time became playtime. My dog learned very quickly that not only was a thunderstorm NOT a big deal, but that fun things happened during it.
When you first get a puppy or a new dog, develop such a plan. Teach your dog the calm and “no big deal” attitude towards thunderstorms. Organize some fun indoor activities for you and your dog based on what your dog considers fun (every dog is unique). Use toys that your dog likes. Provide yummy treats. Perhaps offer a Kong filled with peanut butter, as licking is a calming activity on its own. Give your dog something safe to chew on (always supervise chewing), practice some fun tricks, make up a small agility course, throw a ball and teach your dog how to retrieve it, have a dance party with your dog, etc. There are so many things that you can do that will not only help your dog to survive a thunderstorm but even learn to enjoy the time with you during the thunderstorm. Then when your dog senses a thunderstorm coming, the dog will be happy because it will mean fun with you! Teach your dog how to “sail his ship” and then he can realize that “calm waters” are on the horizon…Maybe even some “fun splashes” with the pack…
What to avoid?
- soothing and reassuring the phobic dog by coddling, talking to him, petting, hugging, etc. Although the intentions are good, the result of nurturing a nervous, anxious, or petrified animal will only be to strengthen the fear. The soothing behavior will be perceived by a frightened dog as an approval of the anxious behavior. Being compassionate is a beautiful and noble thing; however in this case it is important HOW you show compassion. The most compassionate thing you can do is to PREPARE the dog for life and for dealing with stress.
- punishing or scolding a dog who’s afraid of thunderstorms; it won’t help but rather will add more stress and make things worse.
- having your dog exposed to anybody who would (even unintentionally or because they “feel sorry” for your dog) encourage and reinforce fear in your dog during thunderstorms
- giving your dog medication without consulting with your veterinarian
Treatment of the established thunderstorm phobia
Generally speaking, when your dog already suffers from thunderstorm phobia, there are a few options:
- Do nothing - which I do NOT recommend. Phobias do not go away on their own. If you do nothing to help your dog, the phobia will likely get stronger and stronger over time. Every thunderstorm will expose your dog to severe stress. Stress is a part of life, but as I have already explained in the section on severe stress and its results on a dog, it can lead to various physical and mental health problems.
- MANAGE the dog's behavior – in this case, you don’t change how the dog FEELS, but only manage the situation when it happens (assuming you’re able to be with your dog at the time of the thunderstorm). For example, you give your dog medication. The drawback to giving medication is that you have to be present at the time when the thunderstorm is happening to administer the medication to your dog on time. Again, if you live in a geographical area with a rainy season where thunderstorms are likely to happen every day, it is difficult to shield a dog from their occurrences. Other examples of managing the dog's behavior include providing the dog with a crate, reducing the outside noise level, and closing the curtains.
- MODIFY the behavior – This means that you work with your dog to teach the dog to CHANGE HOW THE DOG FEELS about thunderstorms. The dog learns to perceive thunderstorms as non-threatening experiences and eventually the stress associated with them is eliminated or at least greatly reduced. Depending on how strong the phobia already is, it might be a long process and may require a lot of work, patience and understanding. In order to correctly modify the dog's behavior, you may need to consult with a dog behavior specialist.
Behavioral modification: habituation, desensitization and counter conditioning
Behavioral modification might be the best way to help to change your dog’s responses to thunderstorms as well as the way the dog feels about thunderstorms. This can be done using a few behavior modification techniques which are usually used in combination: these are habituation, desensitization and counter conditioning. Determining the main stress trigger that causes the phobia in a dog is crucial. Often it is the sound of thunder, but other elements such as lightning flashes or the sound of rain can also trigger the fearful response. All of these variables need to be examined first and taken into consideration when developing a personalized treatment plan for a thunderstorm phobic dog.
- In the beginning of treatment using behavioral modification, very low levels of the thunderstorm sounds are presented to the dog. This is known as the habituation technique and its goal is to get a dog accustomed to the recordings of thunderstorms at very low sound levels.
- When systematic desensitization is being used in the process of the behavioral modification, the volume of the recorded thunderstorm sounds is slowly increased over a long period of time so that a dog can be exposed to the recorded thunderstorms sounds gradually. The goal of desensitization to thunderstorms is to make the thunderstorms less fear-inducing and to cause the dog to accept them calmly.
- The role of counter conditioning in treating thunderstorm phobia is to teach a dog to make new, positive associations with thunderstorms. So for example, a thunderstorm phobic dog that is going through a behavioral modification treatment where counter conditioning is being used would be given his favorite resources, such as favorite treats or toys, only during the thunderstorm behavioral modification treatment and only at times when the dog exhibits calm, relaxed behavior.
It is extremely important to understand all the steps in the behavioral modification program. The system is quite elaborate and is best utilized by, or in cooperation with, a canine professional specializing in dog behavior and dog psychology. It requires a very good ability to read canine body language. It also assumes an understanding of how our reactions and the dog’s environment affect the dog. Examples of required knowledge include knowing when to turn the volume up, when and why to change the distance between the sound source and the dog, how to choose the locations in the house to play the recording, when the dog is ready for the next step, how to determine when praising the dog is beneficial and when it is detrimental, and finally, when it is necessary to repeat one or more steps in the process.
Always consult your veterinarian about possible medical treatment for thunderstorm phobia. In my experience with thunderstorm phobia in dogs, I have never had to use any medication. Medications have their place in some situations; however they often only cover up the symptoms, rather than treating the problem at its root.
“ Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood .”
~ Marie Curie
Case study: hurricane Katrina canine survivor
I have worked with dogs with varying degrees of thunderstorm phobia, from mild to severe. The most severe case was a dog that survived the Katrina hurricane and suffered from severe thunderstorm phobia. The symptoms went far beyond mere trembling, trying to find a safe spot, salivating, panting or crying. She was rescued and placed in a Florida shelter, then came from to me to be rehabilitated and trained. Before her rehabilitation with me, when she was still at the shelter, she had jumped over a 6ft kennel gate in the shelter during a thunderstorm and had broken her nails. She was found later by shelter employees wandering outside of her kennel with bloody paws. She was terrified. As a Katrina survivor, she had no doubt gone through some very traumatic experiences during the hurricane. In the beginning of her rehabilitation process and treatment for her phobia, when she heard thunder, her eyes would widen and her tail would tuck. She would start very loud vocalizing, shake all over and try to “escape” even though there was no way to run from the thunder. She presented a very sad picture of an animal whose every second in that situation was emotionally painful. She was successfully rehabilitated without the use of tranquilizers or other medication.
Contact Fine-tuned Canines about our Thunderstorm Preparation and Behavior Modification programs:
- Thunder-fun: thunder parties to prepare your puppy, young dog or newly adopted dog to learn how to enjoy thunderstorms
- Thunderstorm phobia behavior modification program (if your dog already suffers from the condition)
- If you live in a geographic area where there are a lot of thunderstorms and your dog is alone a lot, develop a plan of how you can help your dog before thunderstorm season starts.
- Exercise your dog a few hours before expected thunderstorms. Take your dog for a long walk, do some jogging together or let your dog run next to a bicycle
- Be a role model to your dog. Show him a calm, relaxed, peaceful demeanor during thunderstorms. A mother dog would never teach her pups to panic. Never leave your dog outside unsupervised and also do not let your dog out alone in the yard if the dog is already nervous about thunderstorms. Dogs can sense the storms hours before they start and a dog with thunderstorm phobia might panic and injure himself by digging under the fence or jumping over it.
- Secure all the doors including doggy doors to prevent your nervous dog from running outside.
- Use a crate on a regular basis so the dog can have his safe spot that he is very used to going to.
- If you don’t use a crate (although I do recommend crates for many reasons), allow your dog to go to a place the dog perceives to be safe (often it’s a bathroom or a darkened room). Use positive means to distract your dog before fear escalates into phobia.
- Massage your dog (after the dog starts to relax).
- Play some calming music.
- Use sound distractions such as TV or radio, or create some “white noise” by running a fan or air conditioner.
- Offer your dog a safe chew toy. Chewing is a calming activity.
- Offer your dog a Kong stuffed with some peanut butter or cheese. Getting the goodies out of a Kong is another good calming activity and a good distraction as well. Develop the habit of having some fun indoor activities to do together with your dog during a thunderstorm (your very own “thunderstorm party time”) to teach your dog that fun goes along with the thunderstorm. This positive association will create a confident dog that will not get stressed out every time there’s a thunderstorm.
- Give your dog some simple obedience commands during the thunderstorm, such as “down”,”place”, “sit”, etc.
- NEVER coddle or comfort a dog that is already showing signs of stress: shaking, crying, panting, trying to hide. It will only reward and reinforce the anxiety and will make things worse.
- Socialize your dog with calm, confident dogs that are not afraid of thunderstorms (do this during actual thunderstorms). If you have a friend or a relative with calm dogs who are not afraid of thunderstorms and who are also friendly towards other dogs, you might want to ask for their help in teaching your fearful dog to learn how to relax during thunderstorms.
- Contact us about the “Thunderstorm Fun Program” that we offer, which includes a personalized training and behavioral modification plan for your dog and uses the power of the pack: this involves socializing your dog using calm, friendly, thunderstorm neutral dogs who are experienced in assisting us to rehabilitate other canines. Do not hesitate to ask for professional help. Consult a dog behavior specialist or dog behaviorist who truly understands the canine mind and dog psychology.
© Lexi Hayden and FINE-TUNED CANINES
Lexi Hayden is a professional dog training instructor, canine behavior specialist, owner of Fine-tuned Canines, and a proud member of the International Association of Canine Professionals. Fine-tuned Canines provides dog training and canine behavior counseling services to residents of Southwest Florida: Naples FL, Fort Myers FL, Bonita Springs FL, Estero FL, Sanibel Island, FL, Marco Island, FL, Lehigh Acres FL, LaBelle FL, Cape Coral FL, Punta Gorda FL, Charlotte FL, Ave Maria FL, Alva FL, etc.
She can be reached at (239) 935.5391 or via CONTACT page