There’s nothing worse than a dog in the grips of thunderstorm anxiety. While the amazing spectacle of loud claps, hail, heavy rain and lightning strikes can be entertaining for people, it can be frightening for our dogs, triggering hours of howling, hiding and destruction. Thankfully, there are a number of things you can do to help.
Dogs are extremely sensitive to changes in sounds, smell and environment. It isn’t surprising, then, that during a storm the loud noises and changes in barometric pressure cause them to become scared and jittery. However, storm phobia is a progressive condition that gets worse if left unaddressed. To prevent your dog developing a full-blown phobia, it is recommended that you act early.
Keep your dog in a confined area
If your dog panics during a storm, he or she may try to escape from the backyard and get lost or injured in the process. To avoid this, take your dog to a room in the house that’s less sensitive to outside noises and keep him or her there until the storm passes.
Compete with the noise
Playing music or putting on the TV can be a great distraction for your dog and also drown out some of the external noises.
Do not use punishment
Punishing your dog when he or she is scared will only confirm that the situation is dangerous and frightening and will not do any good in reassuring your dog or making them feel more comfortable.
Try to reduce the harmful emotion
Everything you can do to reduce the harmful emotions while your dog is frightened should be done. This may involve attention, reassuring pats, verbal praise, giving them food toys to distract them or bringing out a fun toy. It can also be reassuring for your dog to see that you are not afraid. They should not be ignored or punished as this will just add to their distress.
If your dog’s anxiety is only occurring during thunderstorms (and not other parts of daily life), short-term use of sedatives may help them to relax or even sleep through the storm. It’s important you only use medication under the direction of your veterinarian.
You can slowly desensitise your dog to the sounds of thunderstorms by recreating the stimuli in a controlled environment.
- Train your dog to “sit” and “relax” on command with gentle and reassuring tones. Initially, you may need to use food as a reward.
- Gradually replace the food rewards with verbal praise or toy rewards until your dog is readily able to be calmed.
- Once your dog can be calmed on command, slowly introduce the noises that simulate lightning or thunder. There are CDs made specifically for this purpose. Start at a low volume, applying the command technique.
- Gradually increase the volume and length of exposure to the sounds and continue applying the command technique. Do this regularly so your dog gets used to the sounds.
- Persevere! It may take several sessions a week for a number of weeks or months to get results, but it will be worth it in the long run.
While sedatives may be useful in the short-term, if you need to more permanently address your dog’s anxiety, your vet may recommend ongoing use of anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication. Always use these medications under the direction of your veterinarian.